Keynote lectures/Sounding rockets for astronomy

Sounding rockets are a lofting technology that may be used for radiation astronomy.

The image is actually a Terrier-Sandhawk flown from the Kauai Test Facility from Pad 12 on May 14, 1976, as an X-ray experiment. Credit: Los Alamos Scientific Laboratories and Sandia National Laboratories.


Carried aloft on a Nike-Black Brant VC sounding rocket, the microcalorimeter arrays observed the diffuse soft X-ray emission from a large solid angle at high galactic latitude. Credit: NASA/Wallops.

To measure the spectrum of the diffuse X-ray emission from the interstellar medium over the energy range 0.07 to 1 keV, NASA launched a Black Brant 9 from White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico on May 1, 2008.[1]

The US Naval Research Laboratory group launched an Aerobee 150 during April, 1965 that was equipped with a pair of geiger counters.[2] This flight discovered seven candidate X-ray sources, including the first extragalactic X-ray source; designated Virgo X-1 as the first X-ray source detected in Virgo.[3] A later Aerobee rocket launched from White Sands Missile Range on July 7, 1967, yielded further evidence that the source Virgo X-1 was the radio galaxy Messier 87.[4] Subsequent X-ray observations by the HEAO 1 and Einstein Observatory showed a complex source that included the active galactic nucleus of Messier 87.[5] However, there is little central concentration of the X-ray emission.[6]

Theoretical sounding rocketryEdit

Def. "a suborbital rocket used to launch upper atmosphere, exoatmospheric, and microgravity sondes or probes"[7] is called a sounding rocket.

"Sounding rockets are rockets that carry instruments into the upper atmosphere to investigate its nature and characteristics, gathering data from meteorological measurements at altitudes as low as 32 kilometers to data for ionospheric and cosmic physics at altitudes up to 6400 kilometers.1 Sounding rockets also flight-test instruments to be used in satellites."[8]


An Aerobee-150 is on display. Credit: Tim Evanson.{{free media}}
Lancement d'une fusée sonde Aerobee 350 en 1964. Credit: NASA.{{free media}}
Aerobee 170 is on display at White Sands Missile Range Museum. Credit: Darren L. Court.{{free media}}

"Development of the Aerobee liquid-propellant sounding rocket was begun in 1946 by the Aerojet Engineering Corporation (later Aerojet-General Corporation) under contract to the U.S. Navy. The Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) of Johns Hopkins University was assigned technical direction of the project. James A. Van Allen, then Director of the project at APL, proposed the name "Aerobee." He took the "Aero" from Aerojet Engineering and the "bee" from Bumblebee, the name of the overall project to develop naval rockets1 that APL was monitoring for the Navy. The 18-kilonewton-thrust, two-stage Aerobee was designed to carry a 68-kilogram payload to a 130-kilometer altitude."[8]

"In 1952, at the request of the Air Force and the Navy, Aerojet undertook design and development of the Aerobee-Hi, a high-performance version of the Aerobee designed expressly for research in the upper atmosphere.2 An improved Aerobee-Hi became the Aerobee 150 [imaged on the right at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.]"[8]

An Aerobee 170, second image down on the left, had a nominal altitude of 240 km. The Aerobee 170A had four fins (A) versus three without the A designation.[8]

An "Aerobee 350 [on the left was] launched on its first full flight test, 18 June 1965."[8]


This is a replica of a Nike-Apache primeiro launched from Centro de Lançamento da Barreira do Inferno on 15 December 1965. Credit: Magerson.{{free media}}
Technicians ready a Nike-Apache on board the USNS Croatan, Wallops Flight Center mobile range facility. Credit: NASA/U.S. Navy.{{free media}}

"The Apache solid-propellant rocket stage was used with the Nike first stage. Identical in appearance to the Nike-Cajun, the Nike-Apache could reach higher altitudes because the Apache propellant burning time was longer (6.4 seconds versus Cajun's 4 seconds). It could carry 34-kilogram payloads to an operating altitude of 210 kilometers or 100 kilograms to 125 kilometers."[8]

The former USS Croatan [center image below] was used as a mobile range facility for launching sounding rockets like the Nike-Apache [image on the left].[8]

Former escort carrier USS Croatan was in service for NASA, 1964. Credit: NASA.{{free media}}


A small solid-propellant sounding rocket, Arcas was named in 1959 by its producer, Atlantic Research Corporation. Credit: NASA.{{free media}}

"The name was an acronym for "All-purpose Rocket for Collecting Atmospheric Soundings."1 It was intentional that the first three letters, "A-R-C," also were the initials of the Atlantic Research Corporation.2 An inexpensive vehicle designed specifically for meteorological research, Arcas could carry a five-kilogram payload to an altitude of 64 kilometers.3 Later versions were the Boosted Arcas, Boosted Arcas II, and Super Arcas, all of which NASA used."[8]


Aries Test Vehicle launch is out of White Sands missile range, New Mexico, USA. Credit: Eric Grabow.{{free media}}

"NASA in 1974 was working with the Naval Research Laboratory, Sandia Laboratories, and West Germany to develop a new sounding rocket, the Aries, using surplus second stages from the Department of Defense Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles. The rocket, which had flown three test flights by December 1974, would lift larger payloads for longer flight times than other rockets-in astronomy, physics, and space processing research projects."[8]

"The Aries [had a] greater volume for carrying [experimental] instruments than provided by the Aerobee 350 sounding rocket and [carried] 180- to 900-kilogram scientific payloads to altitudes that would permit 11 to 7 minutes viewing time above 91 440 meters, appreciably longer than the viewing time of the Aerobee 350 and the Black Brant VC."[8]

"The first test flights had carried 817 kilograms to 270.7 and 299 kilometers."[8]

Aries gave "11 to 8 minutes in weightless conditions for materials-processing-experiment payloads of 45 to 454 kilograms."[8]


This is an image of six of the eight Nike-Asp sounding rockets before launch. Credit: U.S. Navy.
The USS Point Defiance shown in this image is one of the first rocket-launching surface ships. Credit: U.S. Navy.

In addition to land-based surface launches of sounding rockets for X-ray detection, occasionally ocean surface ships served as stable platforms. The USS Point Defiance (LSD-31) is one of the first rocket-launching surface ships to support the 1958 IGY Solar Eclipse Expedition to the Danger Island region of the South Pacific. Launchers on deck fired eight Nike-Asp sounding rockets. Each rocket carried an X-ray detector to record X-ray emission from the Sun during the solar eclipse on October 12, 1958.


This shows an Astrobee-1500 sounding rocket. Credit: NASA/U.S. Air Force.{{free media}}

"The uprated Aerobee 150 was named "Astrobee.""[8]

An "Astrobee 1500 [such as imaged on the right had] its first flight test, 21 October 1964."[8]

The Astrobee 1500 had a nominal altitude of 2200 km.[8]

Black brantsEdit

Black Brant sounding rockets shapes are horizontal. Credit: NASA.{{free media}}
Black Brant V rocket is on the launch pad. Credit: NASA.{{free media}}
A Black Brant I rocket is being prepared for launch. Credit: Bristol Aerospace Ltd.{{free media}}
The U.S. Army nomenclature for the BB VI was Weather Rocket, RDT&E, XM75. Credit: Laurence Tulissi & Jason Wentworth, via Peter Alway.{{fairuse}}
A Black Brant II rocket is being inspected before launch. Credit: Bristol Aerospace Ltd.{{free media}}.
Black Brant VIII has a Nike (Army green color, booster first stage) and a Black Brant upper stage for a sounding rocket, here with XQC payload. Credit: NASA.{{free media}}
This is a Black Brant III sounding rocket. Credit: NASA.{{free media}}
Black Brant 9 rocket carrying the Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment 2 (IRVE-2) launches from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. Credit: NASA/Langley/Sean Smith.{{free media}}
Here is a Black Brant IV sounding rocket. Credit: NASA.{{free media}}

"The Black Brant series of sounding rockets was developed by Bristol Aerospace Ltd. of Canada with the Canadian government. The first rocket was launched in 1939. By the end of 1974 close to 300 Black Brants had been launched and vehicles were in inventories of research agencies in Canada, Europe, and the United States, including the U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, and NASA."[8]

"The Canadian government kept the name with the addition of numbers (I through VI by 1974) for different members of the series-rather than giving a code name to each version-to emphasize that they were sounding rockets rather than weapons."[8]

"The Black Brant IVA used a modified upper stage and a more powerful engine than previous models, to boost it to 900 kilometers. The Black Brant V series consisted of three 43-centimeter-diameter sounding rockets with all components interchangeable."[8]

"The Black Brant VA (or "BBVA") used stabilizer components with the BBII's engine and carried 136-kilogram payloads to 160 kilometers, to fill a need for that altitude range. The BBVB, using an engine giving rocket performance double that of the BBII, was designed to meet requirements for scientific investigations above 320-kilometer altitude."[8]

"The Black Brant VC [image at top left] was used by NASA to support the 1973-1974 Skylab Orbital Workshop missions by evaluating and calibrating Workshop instruments. The three-fin solid-fueled Black Brant VB was converted to a four-fin model suitable for launching from White Sands Missile Range and permitting recovery of the rocket payloads. The changes decreased performance somewhat but increased stability and allowed greater variations in payload length and weight on the VC. NASA launched the Black Brant VC on two flights during each of the three manned missions to the Skylab Workshop."[8]

"In 1967, Bristol of Canada received a U.S. Army development contract for a pair of small meteorological sounding rockets. The larger one became the Black Brant VI [image second down on the left], while the smaller one was the Black Brant VII. The U.S. Army nomenclature for the BB VI was Weather Rocket, RDT&E, XM75. The BB VI's solid-propellant motor had a high initial thrust which gradually dropped until burnout. The four tail fins were canted to induce a stabilizing spin. At an apogee of about 75 km (47 miles), the nose cone was ejected, and a parachute opened under which the meteorological instrument package descended to the ground."[9]

"The Black Brant 9 rocket took about four minutes to lift the experiment to an altitude of 131 miles. Less than a minute later it was released from its cover and started inflating on schedule at 124 miles up. The inflation of the shield took less than 90 seconds."[10]

Goddard rocketsEdit

This is a Goddard liquid fueled rocket before launch on April 19, 1932. Credit: NASA.
Robert H. Goddard and a liquid oxygen-gasoline rocket were imaged at Auburn, Massachusetts. Credit: Esther C. Goddard.{{free media}}
Dr. Robert H. Goddard tows his rocket to the launching tower behind a Model A Ford truck, 15 miles northwest of Roswell, New Mexico. 1930-1932. Credit: NASA.{{free media}}

Robert H. Goddard first "shot a scientific payload (barometer and camera) in a rocket flight (1929, Auburn, Massachusetts)".[11]

The image on the left is from 8 March 1926 and shows Robert H. Goddard and a liquid oxygen-gasoline rocket.


A Hawk sounding rocket is launching. Credit: NASA.{{free media}}

"NASA was developing a low-cost sounding rocket in 1974-1975 using surplus motors from the Army's Hawk antiaircraft missiles. The research rocket inherited the Army's name, an acronym for "Homing All the Way Killer," although the new uses would be far removed from the purposes of the weapon system."[8]

"To be flown as a single-stage Hawk or in two-stage combination as the Nike-Hawk, for a variety of research projects, the 35.6-centimeter-diameter rocket would provide a large volume for payloads. Both stages of the Nike-Hawk would use surplus Army equipment (see also Nike). Development testing was proceeding under Wallops Flight Center management. By December 1974, two flight tests of the single-stage Hawk sounding rocket had been launched, the first one lifting off successfully 29 May 1974. The first flight test of the Nike-Hawk was planned for mid-1975."[8]

"The single-stage Hawk could carry a 45-kilogram payload to an 80-kilometer altitude or 90 kilograms to 57 kilometers. Engineers were working toward a performance capability of 45 kilograms to 210 kilometers or 90 kilograms to 160 kilometers for the Nike-Hawk."[8]


This is an Argo-E5 (Jason) rocket. Credit: NASA.{{free media}}

"The name of a series of sounding rockets, "Argo" was from the name of Jason's ship in the ancient Greek myth of Jason's travels in search of the Golden Fleece. The first sounding rocket in this series, developed by the Aerolab Company (later a division of Atlantic Research Corporation), was called "Jason.""[8]


Javelin is in horizontal position on the launcher, for last-minute checks during prelaunch operations. Credit: NASA.{{free media}}

"Argo D-4 (Javelin) was designed to carry 40- to 70-kilogram payloads to 800- to 11OO-kilometer altitudes."[8]


Journeyman (Argo-D8) sounding rocket undergoes pre-flight checks. Credit: NASA.{{free media}}

"Argo D-8 (Journeyman) could carry 20- to 70-kilogram payloads to 1500- to 2100-kilometer altitudes."[8]


Initially, the RAE Skylark is a British ramp-launched, high-altitude research or sounding rocket developed by the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. It has been used by many research organizations including NASA for X-ray astronomy research. Credit: ESA.

In the southern hemisphere at Woomera, South Australia, another X-ray observing location uses a famous and probably the most successful sounding rocket, the Skylark, to place X-ray detectors at suborbital altitudes. "[T]he first X-ray surveys of the sky in the Southern Hemisphere" are accomplished by Skylark launches.[12]

V 2sEdit

This image is a distant view (June 1946) of the V-2 launch complex at White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico prior to the launch on June 28, 1946. Credit: William Baum, United States Navy.
NRL scientists J. D. Purcell, C. Y. Johnson, and Dr. F. S. Johnson among those recovering instruments from a V-2 used for upper atmospheric research above the New Mexico desert. This is V-2 number 54, launched January 18, 1951. Credit: photo by Dr. Richard Tousey, NRL.
The first successful V-2 launch (V-2 number 2) at White Sands Proving Ground is on April 16, 1946. Credit: NRL.

Observatories on the Earth's surface do not seem like a useful place to conduct X-ray astronomy observations in view of the inability of X-rays to reach even the peaks of the highest mountains. From the earliest speculations about detecting X-rays above the Earth's atmosphere, the need to use an appropriate probe suggested a high altitude sounding rocket. The ending of World War II presented an opportunity to use a ballistic missile for just such a purpose. The White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico, at the time an army base, is the first location on land to test the concept. The image at the right shows the V-2 launch complex prior to the launch of V-2 number 6.

The first successful attempt to detect X-rays above the Earth's surface occurred at White Sands Proving Grounds on August 5, 1948, by lofting an X-ray detector with a V-2 rocket.

As with visual or optical astronomy observatories, there is a tendency to place them away from population centers. The photograph at right of the January 18, 1951, V-2 launch indicates one reason for doing so with X-ray observing. Rockets lofted upwards tend to return.

The beginning of the search for X-ray sources above the Earth's atmosphere is August 5, 1948, at 12:07 GMT (Greenwich Mean Time).[13][14] As part of Project Hermes a US Army (formerly German) V-2 rocket number 43 is launched from White Sands Proving Grounds, launch complex (LC) 33, to an altitude of 166 km.[14] This is "the first detection of solar X-rays."[15] After detecting X-ray photons from the Sun in the course of the rocket flight, T.R. Burnight wrote, “The sun is assumed to be the source of this radiation although radiation of wave-length shorter than 4 angstroms would not be expected from theoretical estimates of black body radiation from the solar corona.”[16]


This scan of a photo is of the Missile Park Southern section at the Woomera Test Range in Southern Australia. Credit: .

For possibly locating X-ray sources above the Earth's atmosphere, there are a number of reasons to consider probing from different geographical locations:

  1. early visual observations of the solar corona are associated with eclipses of the Sun by the Moon,
  2. if the Sun is an X-ray source, then perhaps other stars are, and only so many can be observed from one location,
  3. laboratory measurements use a peak of intensity to background (possible unknown sources) technique which demands measuring an X-ray background noise, and
  4. there may be X-ray scattering by the Earth's upper atmosphere.

The NRL and NASA establish another rocket launching facility outside Natal, Brazil to detect X-ray sources in the southern hemisphere.[17]

Recent historyEdit

The recent history period dates from around 1,000 b2k to present.

In 1927, E.O. Hulburt of the US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) and associates Gregory Breit and Merle Tuve of the Carnegie Institution of Washington considered the possibility of equipping Robert H. Goddard's rockets to explore the upper atmosphere.[18] "Two years later, he proposed an experimental program in which a rocket might be instrumented to explore the upper atmosphere, including detection of ultraviolet radiation and X-rays at high altitudes."[18]


  1. Sounding rockets provide a relatively inexpensive way to test new detector technology.

See alsoEdit


  2. Stephen A. Drake. A Brief History of High-Energy Astronomy: 1965 - 1969. NASA HEASARC. Retrieved 2011-10-28.
  3. Charles, P. A.; Seward, F. D. (1995). Exploring the X-ray universe. Cambridge, England: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge. p. 9. ISBN 0-521-43712-1.
  4. Bradt, H.; Naranan, S.; Rappaport, S.; Spada, G. (June 1968). "Celestial Positions of X-Ray Sources in Sagittarius". The Astrophysical Journal 152 (6): 1005–13. doi:10.1086/149613. 
  5. Lea, S. M.; Mushotzky, R.; Holt, S. S. (November 1982). "Einstein Observatory solid state spectrometer observations of M87 and the Virgo cluster". The Astrophysical Journal 262: 24–32. doi:10.1086/160392. 
  6. B. D.Turland (February 1975). "Observations of M87 at 5 GHz with the 5-km telescope". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 170: 281–94. 
  7. (29 January 2013). sounding rocket. San Francisco, California: Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Retrieved 2017-08-11.
  8. 8.00 8.01 8.02 8.03 8.04 8.05 8.06 8.07 8.08 8.09 8.10 8.11 8.12 8.13 8.14 8.15 8.16 8.17 8.18 8.19 8.20 8.21 8.22 8.23 8.24 8.25 Helen T. Wells, Susan H. Whiteley and Carrie E. Karegeannes (June 1975). MONTE D. WRIGHT (ed.). SOUNDING ROCKETS. NASA. p. 227. Retrieved 2017-08-11.
  9. Andreas Parsch (2005). Bristol of Canada Black Brant. Designation-Systems. Retrieved 2017-08-13.
  10. Mary Beth Wusk (17 August 2009). NASA Launches New Technology: An Inflatable Heat Shield. Washington, DC: NASA. Retrieved 2017-08-13.
  11. Mary Bellis (July 7, 2014). Invention and History of Rockets Robert Goddard (1882-1945). Retrieved 2014-07-07.
  12. Ken Pounds (September 2002). "Forty years on from Aerobee 150: a personal perspective". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society London A 360 (1798): 1905-21. doi:10.1098/rsta.2002.1044. PMID 12804236. Retrieved 2011-10-19. 
  13. Rolf Mewe (December 1996). "X-ray Spectroscopy of Stellar Coronae: History - Present - Future". Solar Physics 169 (2): 335-48. doi:10.1007/BF00190610. 
  14. 14.0 14.1 T. R. Burnight (1949). "Soft X-radiation in the upper atmosphere". Physical Review A 76: 165. 
  15. Pounds (1962). "A simple rocket-borne X-radiation monitor-its scope and results of an early flight". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 123: 347-57. Retrieved 2011-10-16. 
  16. Manuel Güdel (2004). "X-ray astronomy of stellar coronae". Astron Astrophys Rev 12 (2-3): 71-237. doi:10.1007/s00159-004-0023-2. 
  17. William R. Corliss (1971). NASA Sounding Rockets, 1958-1968 A Historical Summary NASA SP-4401. Washington, DC: NASA. p. 158. Retrieved 2011-10-19.
  18. 18.0 18.1 Bruce Hevly (1994). Gregory Good (ed.). Building a Washington Network for Atmospheric Research, In: The Earth, the Heavens, and the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Washington, DC: American Geophysical Union. pp. 143–8. ISBN 0-87590-279-0. Retrieved 2011-10-16.

External linksEdit

{{Physics resources}}{{Radiation astronomy resources}}