The State of Suborbital Space Science

Think there’s nothing to learn through suborbital flight and that space science is only done in orbit? Think again. Recently, a group of school students in Canada asked the question: do Epi-Pens work in space? These are epinephrine-loaded injectors used to help people with allergies survive a severe attack. To get an answer, the class at St Brother André Elementary School worked with NASA, the University of Ottawa, and the non-profit Cubes in Space program to launch some Epi-Pens on suborbital flights aboard a rocket and a high-altitude balloon. The result? Post-flight analysis showed that the pens lost their efficacy in space. It was a surprise to NASA as well as to the students.

The experiment was one of many suborbital projects that have been hoisted aloft over the years. These experiments are created and flown by space agencies, companies, educational institutions, and other groups. Their work shows that not only is suborbital science alive and well, but it’s providing important results across a range of sciences. And, in the aftermath of recent shoot-downs of unknown balloons after the Chinese floated one over North America, it’s important to know that balloons, as well as rockets and other launch vehicles, are big players in suborbital research for scientific purposes.

About Suborbital Space Flight

Suborbital spaceflight is exactly what it says: flights that go up to suborbital space, but do not go into orbit around Earth. Each mission can reach outer space (that is, they get to or slightly surpass the von Kármán line at 100 kilometers above sea level). While there the vehicle spends a few minutes at apogee before returning. Those brief moments in space flight provide microgravity environments where researchers can deploy experiments in near-spaceflight conditions.

Typical suborbital space vehicles and spaces. Courtesy NASA/FO Program.

Early in spaceflight history, such flights tested spacecraft and did sounding studies of the upper atmosphere and of astrophysical targets. Today, suborbital missions take place on rocket ships and jets flying parabolic flights, as well as sounding rockets and balloons of all sizes. We may not always hear about those missions unless a celebrity is onboard, but they’re an important part of space science. They often take humans and experiments to the edge of space and back to sample valuable microgravity environments.

Exploring the Extent of Suborbital Access

People, companies, and agencies from around the world involved in suborbital science recently gathered at the 8th Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Broomfield, Colorado. The meeting was a chance to explore science results from recent missions as well as an opportunity to learn about the latest vehicles and programs.

According to meeting chair, Dr. Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute, suborbital space flight is growing as a way to provide space access, more frequent flight chances, and the ability to fly scientists and educators on missions. And, of course, there are public engagement opportunities. “There are applications for research, education, launch service providers, and users,” he said in his opening remarks at the meetings. “The vehicles we use have tremendous uses beyond space tourism.”

Who’s Using Suborbital Space?

Launch systems such as Blue Origin’s New Shepard and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo take people like William Shatner and Richard Branson to space, but also regularly get used by researchers and educators in their work. Some fly with their experiments in so-called “human-tended” missions. Others send their automated instruments up and retrieve data after flight. In a relatively new development, students ranging from grade school to college teams fly their experiments to space on board a variety of suborbital vehicles.

Companies such as Raven Aerostar fly numerous experiments and other projects aboard airships and stratospheric balloons. They serve NASA, as well as schools, and other government entities.

Examples of NASA-provided and commercial high-altitude balloons commonly used in suborbital space missions. (Credits: NASA BPO and FO Program)

School groups deploy their own smaller balloons with the help of educators non-profit groups like Edge of Space Sciences (EOSS). These promote science education by providing hands-on experiences for kids. In addition, microgravity flights aboard the so-called “vomit comets” bring another dimension to suborbital science. For example, experimenters use Zero-G corporation’s flights to test projects in near-weightless conditions at the top of multiple parabolic flights.

WVU students in flight preparation onboard the G-FORCE ONE (Zero-Gee) in a suborbital flight to test materials for on-orbit electronics repair. Photo by Dr. John Kuhlman.

A Few Examples of Suborbital Science

So, what kind of experiments get done in the suborbital realm? The Next-Generation Suborbital Science Conference featured dozens of talks covering a wide range of test subject areas. For example, some very intriguing experiments involve surgery in space. You can’t necessarily test such procedures on the ISS, for example, because containing body fluids is a challenge. A team of doctors at Purdue University, University of Louisville (KY), and Orbital Medicine, Inc. in Virginia used parabolic flights to evaluate instruments to help contain fluids during weightless surgery.

A prototype example of a surgical test unit flown in suborbital science testing. There are gloved portals on each side for surgeon access during test flights. Photo by Carolyn Collins Petersen.

Obviously, scientists study Earth’s atmosphere using balloon flights to the upper stratosphere laden with instruments. Platforms that penetrate the stratosphere can carry remote-sensing instruments to study the physics of thunderstorms, for example. Other experiments can perform spectroscopy of the atmosphere, either from balloons or via commercial suborbital rockets.

An atmospheric balloon study takes instruments up into the stratosphere. Some balloons reach up fairly high to do suborbital science. Courtesy NASA.

What about conditions beyond Earth? One set of experiments flew on Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital flights to simulate conditions on the Moon and asteroids. The idea was to test granular materials and simulated soils in suborbital space. That showed scientists how they behave in their native low-gravity environments. Other experiments, such as Southwest Research Institute’s Box of Rocks Experiment (BORE) have also been tested in suborbital flights.

Suborbital science experiments can test materials likely to be found on asteroids and other small bodies, such as in this Box of Rocks experiment. Courtesy SWRI.

A Bright Future for Suborbital Science

Suborbital research shows that the space only a hundred kilometers above our heads appears to be much more than a place to fly through to get to low-Earth orbit, the Moon, and beyond. It provides a training ground for future astronauts and scientists and their payloads by way of routine flights. By most accounts, the impacts across commercial space as well as science education continue to grow. The continuation of suborbital research would, as so many participants in the Next-Generation conference shared, democratize access to space for both individuals and science teams into the foreseeable future.

For More Information

Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference
Cubes in Space
Edge of Space Sciences
Useless in Space

Carolyn Collins Petersen

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