There are places around the world where science happens for only a short time. And that is where satellites and the space station can’t easily be when that happens. A custom orbital launch for that one purpose does not make sense, especially if all you need to study are short instances of micro-gravity, particle-samples from one particular layer of atmosphere, or anything else your department must find out with minimal expense and extreme altitude. Like this Orion rocket, which ignited a few seconds after the Terrior booster burns out.
Therefore the sub-orbital sounding rocket was developed to fit the bill and it does so frequently by many nations. NASA, alone, does 20 to 30 sounding launches per year!
For example, this rocket ride-along was launched to measure solar energy output at up to 178 miles high. That data was used to calibrate a larger projects solar array requirements. Simple rocket, simple positioning, simple procedure....reletively. (The dizzy spin is for stability)
Again, these rockets do not orbit, but only ascend, apogee, then fall back to earth. They are travelling up to 8,000 mph, which is less than half of the space station’s or any other object’s orbit speed, therefore their reentry is with such little energy, they need minimal heat protection.
This is the Doorknob2 sounding rocket. It was built for project Hardtack which was a series of thirty-five nuclear explosion tests in the 1950's. It was to fly up after testing and sample atmospheres for contaniments and radiation levels.Something satellites could not do, and was too dangerous for pilots to fly around and in.
The early need for limited expense research was born out of the V2 captured technology. In fact, the 2,000kg of warhead it had was replaced with equipment to do the first atmospheric research, and take the first picture of Earth from what was officially space.
So how often are these really used? How inexspensive are they?
The Nike Apache was used over 600 times between 1961 - 1978. At a cost of $6,000 each, you couldn’t get cheaper than that to conduct research with 100 pounds of equipment at 100 miles high. And that was considered a massively successful program.
The Black Brant XII, probably the most famous as it’s beeen a mainstay of all model rocket catalogues in all sizes. Canadian designed and built, any organization can buy one and fly it as needed. Three-stages, and can lift up to 900 pounds of test equipment sometimes near 200 miles high, well clear of any meddlsome atmospheres.
Did you know that the aurora borealis produces nitric oxides in the atmosphere? Sounding rockets found out.
They are excelling in remote field studies, short lead times to have a launch vehicle ready for any immediate need, a large variety of multiple source experiment studies on a single launch, even research for other projects, such as NASA’s supersonic parachute deployment system were tested on sounding rockets before they sent large payloads to mars...like rovers.
They may not be as glamorous as Space-X putting Elon’s car into solar orbit reaching into the asteroid belt, but we’re learning so much more, dozens of times per year with these things.
Where do they launch? NASA launches at Wallops-Deleware, White Sands, Poker Flats-Alaska, Kwalajein Atoll Islands, Andoya in the arctic circle, Esrange in Sweden, Woomera in Australia. Many other nations are also doing their own research. So, its a busy field.