A suborbital test version of a planned new rocket capable of tossing very small payloads into low Earth orbit at a relatively low cost has been test flown successfully from a Mojave, Calif., test site.

The successful launch and recovery of the Prospector 6 (P6) test vehicle took place May 21, under the California Launch Vehicle Education Initiative (Calvein). The effort is being conducted by a joint industry-academic team that is working to develop a low-cost Nanosat Launch Vehicle, a booster capable of delivering payloads of about 10 kilograms (22 pounds) to low Earth orbit.

The partially reusable P6 test vehicle was designed and built by Garvey Spacecraft Corp. in Long Beach, Calif., and California State University, Long Beach. The rocket is a full-scale, but less capable look-alike to the planned two-stage, more advanced vehicle.

The pathfinder P6 flight evaluated new vehicle technologies and more proficient field site operations, said John Garvey of Garvey Spacecraft Corp .

Roaring into the sky, the nearly 27 foot (8 meter) long Prospector 6 flew to slightly under 3,000 feet (914 meters) — a far cry from orbit, but a milestone toward the goal of hurling small satellites into space. The recent flight also carried an interstage, a second-stage simulator and a graphite/epoxy composite payload fairing.

The research team conducted their test operations at the Mojave Test Area, which is owned and operated by the Reaction Research Society.

“Of significance for advocates of responsive space operations,” Garvey said, “was the demonstration of vehicle delivery, integration, payload installation, propellant loading, launch, recovery and shipment back to the California State University, Long Beach campus in a single day.”

“We got the hardware back in decent shape again,” Garvey said. “We’ll be deciding which direction to head next. We might attempt to develop higher performing vehicles or remain focused on getting much of the basic fundamental technology and operations in place first, while still flying university-type payloads.”

Garvey noted that the P6 flight also continued the Calvein practice of manifesting student payloads from across the country.

The experiments supplied by California State University, Long Beach included a mini-Digital Video camera sponsored by a student chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The device captured on board video of the entire flight sequence.

In addition, the hardware handled a real-time telemetry system that adapted commercial off-the-shelf Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) technology to relay key propulsion system parameters.

Also on board the rocket was a measurement-logging package provided by Montana State University that recorded acceleration, pressure and temperature data that already is being used to assess the vehicle’s performance.

With the successful recovery of the P6, the Calvein team now is updating their plans to reuse the hardware in future flight testing. The rocketeers are investigating new propellant mixes, advanced engine chamber materials and novel ways to accommodate payloads on their launcher design.

“There are a number of folks on our end, including myself, who have a strong interest in the results. We are now in the process of updating our near-term test plans. The basic P6 hardware is in good shape and can be refurbished in a short time,” Garvey said.

Along with their recent low-altitude development flight, earlier team achievements include the first-ever powered flight tests of a liquid-propellant aerospike engine and composite cryogenic propellant tankage for liquid oxygen.

Leonard David has been reporting on space activities for nearly 50 years. He is the 2010 winner of the prestigious National Space Club Press Award and recently co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin the book “Mission to Mars — My Vision for Space...