NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) seeks to advance innovative technologies and cutting-edge scientific investigations for its wide range of current and future missions. To achieve this, SMD provides opportunities for conducting investigations involving suborbital flight testing via the Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) solicitation to collect unique scientific data as well as demonstrate and advance research and/or technology payloads.
To complement and augment the current capabilities available via the traditional NASA-provided suborbital vehicles, SMD has incorporated a suite of commercial suborbital capabilities (Figure 1) into the ROSES (B.9) Heliophysics – Low Cost Access to Space (H-LCAS) and (D.3) Astrophysics Research and Analysis (APRA) solicitations that leverage NASA-contracted commercial suborbital providers via the STMD Flight Opportunities program. This expanded portfolio of rocket-powered vehicles and high-altitude balloons offers H-LCAS and APRA researchers additional suborbital platform options, expanded capabilities, and higher flight cadence to enable innovative suborbital investigations and technology testing.
Suborbital platforms offer numerous advantages and opportunities that enable researchers to collect valuable data, as well as advance their experiment and/or technology payloads for demanding space missions. Some of the advantages of suborbital flights include the ability to:
- Collect in-situ scientific data for particular space environments or phenomena.
- Evaluate the performance and feasibility of payloads within relevant environments that cannot be readily replicated through ground-based testing. This includes exposure to high-altitude and near-space environments.
- Collect valuable performance data to advance the overall Technology’s Readiness Level (TRL)
- Refine the experiment/technology in order to significantly reduce technical risks and help ensure success of future missions.
To this end, suborbital flight testing can serve as an invaluable opportunity for conducting advanced scientific investigations as well as maturing novel technologies. Ultimately, suborbital flight testing can also assist in the development of robust payloads. In this manner, an experiment or technology can evolve from benchtop hardware onto a proven flight payload with suborbital heritage, therefore paving the way for potential mission infusion (Figure 2).
ROSES provides researchers with access to two types of suborbital flight testing platforms: high-altitude balloons and rocket-powered vehicles. SMD leverages resources through various programs and across directorates in order to offer investigators multiple research platforms, including the NASA Balloon Program Office, the NASA Sounding Rocket Program Office, and commercial high-altitude balloons and rocket-powered vehicles through the NASA Flight Opportunities program. Jointly, these programs encompass the following types of suborbital platforms:
Large balloon systems (Figure 3) reach a nominal altitude of 30 km or more, can maintain long duration flights (e.g., hours, days, weeks, or months at a time) and in some cases provide station-keeping capabilities. This makes them ideal for payloads that benefit from extended periods of data collection and that may require exposure to the environment for data and sample collections. These systems are advantageous for conducting research experiments and testing new technologies. Some examples include:
- Sun-sensitive and solar instruments
- Astrophysical observation instruments
- Earth-observation instruments
- Other instruments and technologies that may benefit from high-altitude observations (e.g., Earth’s surface, atmospheric and space observations) or drop tests
A variety of rocket-powered vehicles (Figure 4) can reach altitudes between approximately 80-1400 km, experience periods of continuous microgravity, and allow for either a protected pressurized environment or full exposure to space conditions, and in some cases, payload ejection. Their characteristics allow for numerous applications, including:
- Conducting Earth Science, Geospace, Heliophysics, Astrophysics, Solar and Planetary investigations
- Testing new technologies such as autonomous robotic systems, instruments, and sensors
- Evaluating in-space manufacturing techniques
- Collecting in-situ measurements for instrument validation/calibration
Suborbital flight opportunities are currently available through ROSES by means of commercial suborbital platforms and traditional NASA-provided platforms.
Additional information is available directly from the listed commercial flight providers, as well as the NASA Flight Opportunities program and the Guide to Commercial Suborbital Flight Providers for Flight Opportunities.
The ROSES solicitation allows proposers to also leverage non-NASA contracted commercial flight providers that can fulfill the suborbital research flight needs of their investigations. Details regarding the use of these flight providers can be found in the “Proposer-Provided Commercial Suborbital Launch Vehicles” section of the solicitation. As a reference to prospective proposers, NASA Flight Opportunities (FO) maintains a current listing of commercial suborbital flight providers that do not have contracts with NASA but have flown or are currently preparing to fly FO-funded payloads.
The NASA Sounding Rocket Program Office (SRPO) currently operates multiple sounding rocket launch vehicles with varying capabilities (Figure 6), including attaining altitudes from 100 to over 1,400 km, and capable of accepting payloads weighing up to 1,500 pounds. All of these vehicles are routinely used for conducting scientific investigations and technology testing. For further details regarding these vehicles and their individual capabilities, researchers are encouraged to review the NASA Sounding Rocket Program User Handbook.
Researchers can get involved in suborbital research through a variety of paths. One of the first steps involved in suborbital testing requires prospective applicants to carefully evaluate the requirements of their payloads and testing environment and then compare these requirements with the capabilities offered by the NASA and commercial suborbital platforms previously described. Prospective proposers are encouraged to contact the various NASA programs and/or commercial flight providers in order to request a copy of their most recent Payload User Guide (PUG). PUGs contain detailed information regarding a specific vehicle, its capabilities, and flight environments, in addition to compatible payload parameters such as mass, volume, power availability, etc. This information will enable investigators to determine if their payload will be compatible with a particular suborbital platform.
If the capabilities offered by the NASA-provided traditional platforms and the NASA-contracted commercial suborbital platforms prove suitable to the needs of the researcher, there are a variety of funding opportunities for supporting suborbital investigations. These include:
- Science Mission Directorate
- ROSES Solicitation
- B.9 Heliophysics Low-Cost Access to Space (H-LCAS)D.3 Astrophysics Research and Analysis (APRA)Additional information can be found in the ROSES 2023 APRA & H-LCAS Informational Webinar (September 2023) (YouTube).
- ROSES Solicitation
- Space Technology Mission Directorate
Researchers are encouraged to leverage tools and resources that currently exist for supporting suborbital flight testing. These include:
- Suborbital platform flight simulators: In some cases, flight providers may be able to provide prospective researchers with flight simulators of a particular platform to assist in the process of determining vehicle suitability for the researcher’s prospective payload, as well as assisting during the flight hardware design, buildup, and testing phases leading up to the suborbital flight. Researchers can contact the NASA Balloon Program Office, the NASA Sounding Rocket Program Office, and the various NASA-contracted commercial flight providers to obtain further details regarding their vehicles, characteristics, and capabilities.
- Monthly Suborbital Research Webinars: The NASA Flight Opportunities (FO) program Community of Practice initiative offers monthly webinars (live & recorded sessions) dedicated to suborbital flight testing. These webinars encompass a wide range of topics, including subject matter experts highlighting suborbital research best practices, optimizing the experience for current and prospective researchers, and communicating lessons learned by researchers, among many other.
- Previously Funded Suborbital Research Projects: The NASA Flight Opportunities Technology Portfolio contains a detailed list of funded suborbital flight projects and associated abstracts that encompass multiple disciplines. Additionally, yearly ROSES solicitations listed in NSPIRES also include links to lists and abstracts of funded proposals.
- NASA Balloon User Community: the NASA Balloon Program Office (BPO) created the NASA Balloon Working Group that enables researchers to discuss current and past missions. Additional information regarding this working group is available directly from this program office.
- NASA Sounding Rocket User Community: the NASA Sounding Rocket Program Office (SRPO) created the NASA Sounding Rocket Working Group that provides researchers with a web portal highlighting information regarding current and past missions.