What’s a suborbital flight? An aerospace engineer explains

“Suborbital” is a time period you’ll be listening to loads as Sir Richard Branson flies aboard Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity winged spaceship and Jeff Bezos flies aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard automobile to the touch the boundary of house and expertise a couple of minutes of weightlessness.

However what precisely is “suborbital”? Merely put, it implies that whereas these automobiles will cross the ill-defined boundary of house, they won’t be going quick sufficient to remain in house as soon as they get there.

If a spacecraft – or the rest, for that matter – reaches a pace of 17,500 mph (28,000 km/h) or extra, as an alternative of falling again to the bottom, it’ll constantly fall across the Earth. That steady falling is what it means to be in orbit and is how satellites and the Moon keep above Earth.

Something that launches to house however doesn’t have ample horizontal velocity to remain in house – like these rockets – comes again to Earth and subsequently flies a suborbital trajectory.

Why these suborbital flights matter

Though the 2 spacecraft launched in July 2021 is not going to attain orbit, the accomplishment of reaching house in non-public spacecraft is a significant milestone within the historical past of humanity. These aboard these and all future private-sector, suborbital flights will for a couple of minutes be in house, expertise a couple of minutes of exhilarating weightlessness, and completely earn their astronaut wings.