1.2: Designations

In my launch vehicle database, I have assigned designations to suborbital vehicles.

The WDC/RS-A system for sounding rockets assigned numbers of the form R7402-1311, for the 11th cataloged launch on 1974 Feb 13. I considered retaining these designations but instead have found it more useful to use a scheme similar to international designations for orbital launches.

(Note: In earlier editions I used a different scheme).

The first scheme for designating orbital launches was the Harvard scheme, invented by Fred Whipple and colleagues in 1957 and published in the Harvard Announcement Circulars from the Harvard Observatory. This was of the form "year - greek letter - piece number", as in "1957 Alpha 2", indicating the second object of the first (Alpha) launch of 1957.

This scheme was used until the end of 1962. It was replaced by the COSPAR designation of the form "year - launch number - piece letter", as in 2005-012E, indicating the fifth (E) piece of the 12th launch of 2005. The piece letters run from A to Z, then AA to AZ, BA ... to ZZ, AAA to AAZ, etc., always omitting the letters I and O. Usually, the first piece letters are reserved for the main payloads, followed by the rocket stages, followed by debris. Also usually, the launch numbers are in chronological order within the year. However, there are exceptions to both of these rules.

In principle, international designations are assigned to launches and pieces of launches which either complete a full orbit of the Earth or reach the Moon or beyond. Again, there are exceptions - launches which completed an orbit but did not get a designation, and launches or pieces which did not complete and orbit but got a designation anyway.

A few years ago I introduced a catalog of orbital launch failures which assigned analogous designations for failures, of the form 2005-F01, etc. where the F indicates 'Failure'. These designations only label launches; I have not assigned piece letters to individual failed space objects.

I have also used 'E' to indicate a pad explosion, and 'U' to indicate a launch that should have received a regular designation but did not (e.g. 1995-U01).

In my new scheme, I extend this approach to label all of the non-orbital launches in my catalog by adding new special letters to the launch number: 1995-S01, 1995-A01, etc. You might call this the "JSR" scheme or even the "New Harvard" scheme (technically I work for the Smithsonian Institution's SAO, and I'm doing this on my own time, but to the extent that I'm on the Harvard campus and support space-related outreach inquiries for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and recalling that Fred's satellite support team was an SAO program too, it's good enough.)

In the table below, NL is the number of launches in the catalog for each type as of July 2005.



Desig. Letter ----- Meaning ----- NL Totals

Greek Harvard (pre 1963) designation 150
None COSPAR (international) designation 4235
U Uncataloged launch with orbital energy 64

(Total orbital:) 4449

F Failed orbital attempt: total (divided below) 305

F Failed orbital attempt: estimated suborbital 175
S Suborbital space flight: apogee 80 km or higher 13954
Y Weather suborbital space flight: apogee 80 km or higher 9084

(Total suborbital:) 23213

F Failed orbital attempt: estimated mesospheric? 19
M Mesospheric: rocket flight in the mesosphere, 50-80 km 667
W Weather mesospheric flight: apogee 50-80 km 23993

(Total mesospheric:) 24679

F Failed orbital attempt: estimated atmospheric? 111
A Atmospheric: rocket flight below the stratopause 5870
E No attempted launch: pad explosion destroyed rocket 7

(Total atmospheric:) 5988

(Total overall:) 58329



Since the non-orbital catalog is incomplete, and I often identify previously undocumented historical launches, there are many more cases of launch numbers that are not chronological. Thus, 1961-S227 may have a launch date earlier than 1961-S612.

I've separated rocket flights into space (S) from those at low altitudes in the atmosphere (A) and added an intermediate category (M) for the 50-80 km range in the mesosphere.

I've also separated out some small meteorological rocket launches which would normally be in the M and S categories, and instead labelled them W and Y respectively. That's because there's a lot of these small rockets and the data on them is very incomplete; I'm hoping the M and S lists are relatively complete, although every day I'm finding that's not the case.

Another wrinkle is that launches can change designation. If I've got documentation on a Nike Apache launch with no information on apogee, I may assume it worked and give it an S designation. If I later find it failed at low altitude, I will retire the S designation and assign a new A designation.