Elon Musk's private space program jumped another 40 meters just before Christmas, with the VTVL "Grasshopper" rocket successfully lifting more than its own length into the air and safely setting down again.
The test follows one from September which involved lifting a few feet, and a November test of a couple of meters, but SpaceX has now upped the ante both technically and visually as the rocket balances on its own needle of flame before carefully lowering itself down on the pad.
The Grasshopper uses a Merlin 1D engine, which is fitted in a cluster of nine in the first stage of the Falcon 9 space launcher, and if the tests continue to succeed the idea is that such first stages will be able to pilot themselves back to earth rather than being ditched into the sea as currently happens.
NASA used to maintain two sea-going ships, Freedom and Liberty, just to manage the recovery of Shuttle boosters, and that's before one starts to think about the effect of seawater on reusable components, so flying them back would save a good deal of money.
But SpaceX has even bigger aspirations for its balancing-on-a-needle-of-fire trick, as a landing technique replacing splashdown for crewed capsules, but it’s a tricky thing to carry off: which explains the careful stepping up in the height of each hop as confidence grows. ®