Sounding Rockets

For over 40 years, NASA's Sounding Rocket Program has provided critical scientific, technical, and educational contributions to the nation's space program and is one of the most robust, versatile, and cost-effective flight programs at NASA.

Sounding rockets carry scientific instruments into space along a parabolic trajectory. Their overall time in space is brief, typically 5-20 minutes, and at lower vehicle speeds for a well-placed scientific experiment. The short time and low vehicle speeds are more than adequate (in some cases they are ideal) to carry out a successful scientific experiments. Furthermore, there are some important regions of space that are too low for satellites and thus sounding rockets provide the only platforms that can carry out measurements in these regions.

Go to for the latest sounding rocket news.

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Grand Challenge-Cusp 2018

The Grand Challenge Initiative (GCI) – Cusp is a series of international sounding rocket missions planned for launch in 2018-2019. Together, the rockets provide unprecedented coordinated studies of near-Earth space at the polar regions.
  • Grand Challenge-Cusp Graphics

    North of Norway over the Norwegian and Greenland Seas, a magnetic bubble, known as the cusp, surrounds Earth and dips inward, allowing space particles to funnel in toward the planet.

    Credit: Andøya Space Center/Trond Abrahamsen

Produced Videos

  • Sounding Rockets Highlights
    NASA Launches Sounding Rockets to Study Aurora

    Music credit: Trial by Gresby Race Nash [PRS] from Killer Tracks.

  • NASA-Funded Sounding Rocket Solves One Cosmic Mystery, Reveals Another
    In the last century, humans realized that space is filled with types of light we can’t see – from infrared signals released by hot stars and galaxies, to the cosmic microwave background that comes from every corner of the universe. Some of this invisible light that fills space takes the form of X-rays, the source of which has been hotly contended over the past few decades.

    It wasn’t until the flight of the DXL sounding rocket, short for Diffuse X-ray emission from the Local galaxy, that scientists had concrete answers about the X-rays’ sources. In a new study, published Sept. 10, 2016, in the Astrophysical Journal, DXL’s data confirms some of our ideas about where these X-rays come from, in turn strengthening our understanding of our solar neighborhood’s early history. But it also reveals a new mystery – an entire group of X-rays that don’t come from any known source.

  • EUNIS Sees Evidence for Nanoflare Heating
    Scientists have recently gathered some of the strongest evidence to date to explain what makes the sun's outer atmosphere so much hotter than its surface. The new observations show temperatures in the atmosphere so hot that only one current theory explains them: something called nanoflares – a constant peppering of impulsive bursts of heating, none of which can be individually detected — provide the mysterious extra heat.

    These new observations come from just six minutes worth of data from one of NASA's least expensive type of missions, a sounding rocket. The EUNIS mission, short for Extreme Ultraviolet Normal Incidence Spectrograph, launched on April 23, 2013, gathering a new snapshot of data every 1.3 seconds to track the properties of material over a wide range of temperatures in the complex solar atmosphere.

    The unique capabilities of EUNIS enabled researchers to obtain these results. The spectrograph was able to clearly and unambiguously distinguish the observations representing the extremely hot material – emission lines showing light with a wavelength of 592.6 angstrom, where an angstrom is the size of an atom — from a very nearby light wavelength of 592.2 angstroms.

  • NASA X-ray Instrument Confirms the 'Local Hot Bubble'
    New findings from the NASA-funded Diffuse X-ray emission from the Local Galaxy (DXL) mission have resolved a decades-old puzzle about a fog of low-energy X-rays observed over the entire sky. Using refurbished detectors first flown on a NASA sounding rocket in the 1970s, astronomers have now confirmed the long-held suspicion that much of this glow stems from a region of million-degree interstellar plasma known as the local hot bubble, or LHB. In the 1990s, a six-month all-sky survey by the German X-ray observatory ROSAT provided improved maps of the soft X-ray diffuse background. But it also revealed that comets were an unexpected source of soft X-rays. As scientists began to understand this process, called solar wind charge exchange, they realized it could occur anywhere neutral atoms interacted with the solar wind, leading scientists to challenge the LHB interpretation. On Dec. 12, 2012, DXL launched from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico atop a NASA Black Brant IX sounding rocket, reaching a peak altitude of 160 miles (258 km) and spending five minutes above Earth's atmosphere. The mission design allowed the instrument to observe a worst-case scenario involving charge exchange with interstellar gas. The solar system is currently passing through a small cloud of cold interstellar gas as it moves through the galaxy. The cloud’s neutral hydrogen and helium atoms stream through the planetary system at about 56,000 mph (90,000 km/h). While hydrogen atoms quickly ionize and respond to numerous forces, the helium atoms travel paths largely governed by the sun's gravity. This creates a "helium focusing cone" downstream from the sun that crosses Earth's orbit and is located high in the sky near midnight in early December. Better still, it forms a region with a much greater density of neutral atoms and a correspondingly enhanced charge exchange rate. The solar wind originates in the sun's corona, the hottest part of its atmosphere, so its atoms have been ionized, stripped of many of their electrons. When these particles collide with a neutral atom, one of its electrons often jumps to the solar wind ion. Once captured, the electron briefly remains in an excited state, then emits a soft X-ray and settles down at a lower energy. To establish a baseline for the soft X-ray background, the researchers used data captured by the ROSAT mission in September 1990 in a direction looking along, rather than into, the helium focusing cone. The results indicate that only about 40 percent of the soft X-ray background originates within the solar system, which means the LHB is the dominant source.
  • Sharpest-Ever Images of the Sun's Corona
    In July 2012 NASA's High Resolution Coronal Imager, or Hi-C, telescope launched on a sounding rocket and captured the highest-resolution images ever taken of the sun's million-degree atmosphere, or corona. The square area outlined in yellow in the full disk image of the sun [left], taken by the Atmospheric Imaging Array (AIA) on NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), represents the Hi-C field-of-view. The Hi-C telescope captured five minutes of data of the solar corona at about five times finer resolution than SDO's AIA. Within the Hi-C field-of-view [center], scientists identified several examples of coronal braiding—structures that appear to be wrapped and woven together. Zoomed in [right], these braided structures appear to be several strands, or magnetic field lines, tangled together, illuminated by hot plasma. This particular braided structure released energy in a small solar flare, shortly after the Hi-C flight. For decades scientists have sought to understand why the corona is 50 to 100 times hotter than the surface of the sun. Images like these, taken by Hi-C, hint that these braided structures release magnetic energy that likely contributes to the intense heating of the solar corona.

    Used in 2014 Calendar.

  • NASA Jet Stream Study Lights up Night Sky
    High in the sky, 60 to 65 miles above Earth's surface, winds rush through a little understood region of Earth's atmosphere at speeds of 200 to 300 miles per hour. Lower than a typical satellite's orbit, higher than where most planes fly, this upper atmosphere jet stream makes a perfect target for a particular kind of scientific experiment: the sounding rocket. Some 35 to 40 feet long, sounding rockets shoot up into the sky for short journeys of eight to ten minutes, allowing scientists to probe difficult-to-reach layers of the atmosphere.

    In March, NASA will launch five such rockets in approximately five minutes to study these high-altitude winds and their intimate connection to the complicated electrical current patterns that surround Earth. First noticed in the 1960s, the winds in this jet stream shouldn't be confused with the lower jet stream located around 30,000 feet, through which passenger jets fly and which is reported in weather forecasts. This rocket experiment is designed to gain a better understanding of the high-altitude winds and help scientists better model the electromagnetic regions of space that can damage man-made satellites and disrupt communications systems. The experiment will also help explain how the effects of atmospheric disturbances in one part of the globe can be transported to other parts of the globe in a mere day or two.

    The five sounding rockets, known as the Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment (ATREX), will launch from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia releasing a chemical tracer into the air. The chemical — a substance called trimethyl aluminum — forms milky, white clouds that allow those on the ground to "see" the winds in space and track them with cameras. In addition, two of the rockets will have instrumented payloads to measure pressure and temperature in the atmosphere.

  • Terrier-improved Malemute Animations
    Animations of the Terrier-improved malemute type sounding rocket.
  • Riding on a Sounding Rocket
    On March 23, 2011, two on-board cameras followed a sounding rocket on its journey from Earth to space and back again. The rocket was launched to measure solar energy output and calibrate the EVE instrument on the Solar Dynamics Observatory.

Imagery From Remote Campaigns

  • Aurora Imagery from Poker Flats
    The northern lights were dancing across the sky over Alaska the night of Feb. 16 as seen from the Poker Flat Research Range north of Fairbanks. While skies were clear at Poker and the auroras were active, cloudy skies over downrange viewing sites prevented the launch of NASA sounding rockets carrying instruments to explore the Earth's magnetic environment and its impact on Earth’s upper atmosphere and ionosphere. Special ground-based instruments are located at the downrange sites for observing the aurora into which the rockets fly. The launch window for the four sounding rockets runs through March 3. Credit: NASA/Terry Zaperach