Sounding rocket

A Black Brant XII being launched from Wallops Flight Facility.

A sounding rocket, sometimes called a research rocket, is an instrument-carrying rocket designed to take measurements and perform scientific experiments during its sub-orbital flight. The rockets are used to carry instruments from 50 to 1,500 kilometers (31 to 932 mi)[1] above the surface of the Earth, the altitude generally between weather balloons and satellites—the maximum altitude for balloons is about 40 km (25 mi) and the minimum for satellites is approximately 120 km (75 mi).[2] Certain sounding rockets, such as the Black Brant X and XII, have an apogee between 1,000 and 1,500 kilometers (620 and 930 mi), the maximum apogee of their class. Sounding rockets often use military surplus rocket motors.[3] NASA routinely flies the Terrier Mk 70 boosted Improved Orion lifting 270–450-kilogram (600–990 lb) payloads into the exoatmospheric region between 100 and 200 kilometers (62 and 124 mi).[4]


The origin of the term comes from nautical vocabulary to sound, which is to throw a weighted line from a ship into the water to measure the water's depth. The term itself has its etymological roots in the Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, and French words for probe, which are "sonda" and "sonde", respectively. Sounding in the rocket context is equivalent to taking a measurement.[3]

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