Going Suborbital: The Game-Changing Advantages of Suborbital Launches for Science, Pharma, and Space Companies Worldwide
Developing a satellite for orbital launch has been the default way to validate technical solutions and increase technology readiness level (TRL) for scientific projects, space teams, and pharma companies in recent years. However, suborbital launches—which could be under the radar due to the lack of shout-outs like this one, the romanticism of deeper space travel, and the status of the still-emerging launch market—can provide a faster, more affordable, and more efficient way to achieve the same objectives.
Suborbital missions allow for a shorter feedback loop and more frequent opportunities to test and gather data in a microgravity or space environment. This results in astronomical savings in terms of cost and time, as compared to orbital launches. Based on the experience of Precious Payload’s team working with over a hundred space missions in the last five years, the game-changing advantages of suborbital launches should not be ignored.
Recently, using Precious Payload’s space mission-management software, Launch.ctrl, ResearchSat successfully launched its ADI-Alpha tech demo mission. With experiments on cell cultures and drug emulsion experiments on the microfluidic chip, the payload hitched a ride aboard the Swedish Space Corporation (SSC)’s Suborbital Express-3 mission. The rocket reached an altitude of 260km to provide six minutes of microgravity, allowing ResearchSat to conduct valuable research without breaking the bank.
Read ResearchSat’s story: Harnessing Precious Payload’s software to enable innovative RnD for pharma industry
ResearchSat advanced its TRL quickly and at a lower cost simply by booking a launch on SSC’s suborbital flight through Precious Payload’s comprehensive Launch.ctrl platform. For ResearchSat, this marks the first in a series of modular solutions to support microgravity research, as an addition to experimental missions conducted onboard the ISS.
Precious Payload’s Launch.ctrl platform accommodated the user-specific mission parameters required by ResearchSat to pull off the mission, while also moderating the exchanges between suppliers and obtaining formal proposals for suborbital flights in just a few weeks. SSC’s heritage, paired with their cost-effective launch options and comparatively fast feedback, made them a perfect match for ResearchSat.
Benefits of suborbital launches
Payload developers use suborbital flights for a variety of reasons. Some benefits of suborbital flights include:
- Lower cost: Suborbital flights are generally less expensive than orbital launches because they require less energy.
- Flexibility: Suborbital flights can be used to test a wide range of payloads, including scientific experiments, technology demonstrations, and commercial products.
- Shorter duration: Suborbital flights offer a shorter duration of microgravity environment, which is useful for certain types of experiments that require a brief period of weightlessness.
- Access to near-space: Suborbital flights can provide access to the near-space environment for studying atmospheric phenomena and testing equipment for satellites or high-altitude aircrafts, etc.
- Faster missions: Scientists and payload developers who test their hypotheses on suborbital flights can typically do so more quickly. They are often able to simply and quickly recover their payload, see results immediately, and iterate more.
Types of payloads and missions for suborbital flights
Typical applications for suborbital payloads include scientific experiments, tech demos, commercial ventures, and educational projects.
Researchers use suborbital flights to conduct experiments in microgravity, atmospheric, and materials science. Their payloads usually include biological or material samples along with scientific instruments. Companies and engineers use suborbital flights to test new technologies such as propulsion systems, avionics, and communications equipment. These payloads can include test articles, prototypes, or full-scale systems. Suborbital flights can also transport commercial payloads, such as imaging equipment and cargo.
On crewed suborbital missions, it’s important to note that payloads need to meet the safety requirements of the flight, as they will be on board with other payloads and human passengers.
Suborbital flights typically last anywhere from a few minutes to about an hour. During this time, the vehicle will reach altitudes of several hundred kilometers above the Earth’s surface, providing a brief period of weightlessness and a near-space environment. This is sufficient time to test certain communications equipment and propulsion systems.
For example, if the goal is to test a communication system’s ability to operate in a near-space environment, a suborbital flight would be a suitable platform. Similarly, if the goal is to test a propulsion system’s performance during a short burn, a suborbital flight could provide the necessary conditions. However, to test the long-term performance of a communication system or propulsion system, a suborbital flight may not be long enough.
Suborbital flights offer several advantages for testing payloads, including:
- Microgravity: Suborbital flights provide a brief period of weightlessness, which can be useful for testing payloads sensitive to gravity or for payloads where results from experiments performed without the presence of gravity play an important role for earth-bound research and developments. This includes materials science experiments, biological experiments, immunology, and fluid physics experiments.
- Vibration: Suborbital rocket launches provide an environment of mechanical vibrations, which can be useful for testing and validation of payloads sensitive to vibration such as avionics, propulsion systems, and structural components. For launches aboard a spaceplane, on the other hand, the vibration levels will be much lower.
- Thermal environment: Suborbital flights provide an environment of extreme temperatures, helpful for testing payloads sensitive to temperature. This includes the testing of materials, thermal control systems, and radiation shielding.
- Radiation: Suborbital flights provide an environment of increased radiation, necessary for testing payloads sensitive to radiation, including radiation-hardened electronics, solar cells, and radiation-shielding materials.
- Altitude: Suborbital flights provide an environment of high altitude, which allows for testing payloads sensitive to altitude, like atmospheric research instruments and imaging equipment.
- Reusability: Some suborbital vehicles are reusable, which can be useful for testing payloads that require multiple flights or multiple testing sessions.
Suborbital launch campaign
A typical suborbital launch campaign can involve the same stages as an orbital launch campaign, including:
- Pre-flight Campaign: This is the process of preparing the vehicle and payload for launch, including loading the payload into the vehicle, fueling the vehicle, and performing final tests and inspections.
- Payload Integration: This is the process of integrating the payload with the vehicle and ensuring that it meets the safety and performance requirements of the flight. This stage may include designing custom interfaces and mounting hardware, performing functional and environmental testing, and developing the flight software.
- Ground Testing: This encompasses testing the vehicle and payload on the ground before launch, including functional tests of the vehicle’s systems, environmental tests to simulate the conditions of the flight, and integration tests to ensure that the payload and vehicle are properly integrated.
- Launch/Flight: This is the process of launching the vehicle and payload into space. Steps include launching the vehicle from a launch site, flying to the desired altitude and trajectory, and deploying the payload.
- Post-flight Operations: This is the process of recovering the vehicle and payload after the flight. This phase may involve landing the vehicle, recovering the payload, and performing post-flight inspections and tests.
Offtop: Watch how SpinLaunch recovers their client’s payloads after the launch
- Data Analysis: This might include analyzing the performance of the vehicle and payload, and assessing the results of any experiments or tests conducted during the flight.
Additionally, the launch campaign will be subject to regulatory approvals and safety reviews.
The cost of a suborbital launch
The cost to launch a payload on a suborbital flight can vary depending on several factors including the size and weight of the payload, the duration and conditions of the flight, and the specific requirements of the mission. Teams can use Precious Payload’s launch schedule to calculate estimates for a specific mission’s suborbital launch.
It’s important to note that these prices are estimates and can change depending on the payload and flight requirements. Additionally, the market is still developing, so prices may vary. The cost of launching a payload on a suborbital flight may also depend on the launch provider, the location of the launch, and the current competition in the market.
For example, Precious Payload’s partners at Exos Aerospace are offering a huge discount for their Rapid Reusability demo missions scheduled for November/December 2023. At just $4000 per kilo/1U cubesat, it’s likely the best option still available for booking this year. Book a launch with Exos with the user-friendly Launch.ctrl platform.
The current state of the commercial suborbital market
These days, the suborbital market is primarily focused on developing vehicles for space tourism and scientific research. Companies such as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have developed suborbital spacecraft to take paying customers on short trips to space. Additionally, NASA and other organizations are interested in using suborbital flights for scientific research and testing new technologies.
However, the market is still in its early stages, and commercial suborbital flights are not yet widely available. Precious Payload is working hard to change this by collecting and marketing suborbital launch opportunities open for booking on its launch schedule, giving payload developers access to a wide range of new suborbital options.
Explore the suborbital launch opportunities open for booking with Precious Payload.
The launch market is currently in a phase of development where many emerging launch providers are performing their maiden launches using suborbital vehicles. This allows these companies to test and prove the reliability of their launch systems, as well as gain experience in conducting launches before moving on to more complex and expensive orbital launches. For example, Canadian rocket builder Reaction Dynamics plans to launch their suborbital demo of the Aurora 1 rocket in 2023. Precious Payload includes options like these on their Launch Schedule, and partners with providers to make these unique opportunities available to anyone wanting to get to space cheaper, faster, and more efficiently.
Use the Launch.ctrl platform by Precious Payload to book your suborbital launch online, or schedule a call with us to get access to even more suborbital and orbital launch opportunities in our non-public database.