Advantages of Suborbital Launch Vehicles

By  //  May 13, 2021

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Several aerospace companies work on designing a suborbital launch vehicle of their own. Some have space tourism in mind; others are interested in advancing science. But what advantages do suborbital launchers have?

Understanding the Advantages of suborbital launch vehicles

What is the buzz about suborbital launch vehicles? You might have already heard about space tourism. More than one private aerospace company, including SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin, is trying to send payloads and people beyond our planet’s surface.

Some of these companies even aim to offer suborbital flights to paying customers. 

Space Tourism as a Dream that May Soon Come True

Unlike past launch vehicles, present-day launchers do not have any manned crew inside them. 

As mentioned above, Virgin Galactic is trying to offer space tourism very soon. Along with seeing our Earth from such a height, lucky passengers will also experience a few seconds of weightlessness during such flights. 

Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic subsidiary, is in charge of sending people to space. Their New Shepard launch vehicles are designed to offer regular space tours to paying customers. However, not everyone can afford a ticket on this launch vehicle, as the price for one single ticket will be hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

But suborbital launch vehicles will not be used for space tourism alone. They will allow scientists to study microgravity effects without sending actual astronauts to the International Space Station.

Still, there is a big concern about suborbital launch vehicles — human safety. You will not want a launch vehicle to burst into flames with multiple passengers inside as soon as it hits outer space, will you? 

Another big challenge is to land launch vehicles at the same spot as they initially launched from. Besides landing, space tourists will first have to cross the Karman line, after which space begins.

The flight path for a launch vehicle can either be vertical or horizontal. But the most important thing here is that a given launch vehicle lands at the same site from where it took off from. 

What are suborbital launch vehicles? 

The key difference between a traditional rocket and a suborbital launch vehicle is that the latter does not necessarily need to achieve orbit. Suborbital rockets refer to a launch vehicle that has the power to reach outer space but does not need to achieve orbit. 

As far as speed is concerned, suborbital launch vehicles can reach a speed that is 2-6 times the speed of sound.

Now, let us compare orbital and suborbital launch vehicles head to head. When it comes to flying speed, a suborbital rocket usually travels at only 3,700 mph (6,000 km/h). Falcon 9, Falcon 1, Proton, are some of SpaceX launch vehicle examples. 

In contrast to that, an orbital launch vehicle will usually travel at speeds of 17,400 mph (28,000 km/h). Unless the launch vehicle achieves this speed, it cannot reach the Earth’s orbit, which starts at a 125-miles mark.

Due to high-speed requirements, an orbital rocket is very expensive. The internal engineering that goes into it is also very complex, which only adds to the final cost of any launch vehicle. 

Why are suborbital rockets in demand? 

Suborbital launch vehicles are popular for a few specific reasons. First comes their commercial use. In commerce, suborbital carriers are used for payload delivery, broadcasting, commercial imaging, and space tourism. 

The second implementation of suborbital rockets is in science. Scientists and researchers rely on suborbital carriers for microgravity research and atmospheric research. 

Using suborbital launch vehicles for experiments and tests is nothing new. Back in the early 1920s, Robert H. Goddard used liquid-fueled rockets for research. However, this project was not successful.

The first-ever reported experiments of suborbital space flights date back to 1944. A V-2 test rocket reached an altitude of 189 kilometers after being launched from Germany. 

Then comes suborbital launcher use in National Security. Private companies, as well as the government, have been using these vehicles for surveillance, testing of experimental systems such as missile controls, and so on. 

Advancements with Suborbital Vehicles 

The future of suborbital vehicles looks bright. Here is a quick space fact that you might not know about. Did you know an individual from Russian paid $20 Million to orbit around the Earth back in 2001? Yes, space tourism is real. And with recent technological advancements, space tourism will only become more affordable. 

One of the first suborbital launch vehicles that completed two rounds of the suborbital space flight within five days is SpaceShipOne. Rocket design was later bought by virgin Galactic, which led to the development of the SpaceShipTwo. 

Along with crewed suborbital space rocket launch missions, there have been many unscrewed missions as well, such as ICBMs and several research rockets. 

Today, the space industry is developing rapidly, and many more private companies enter the so-called private space race. How do you think which of these companies will become a real space pioneer?