Vid SpaceX, the radical upstart startup rocket firm helmed by PayPal hecamillionaire and geek visionary Elon Musk, has announced a further successful trial of its hovering "Grasshopper" test vehicle.
According to the company:
On Thursday, March 7, 2013, SpaceX’s Grasshopper doubled its highest leap to date to rise 24 stories or 80.1 meters (262.8 feet), hovering for approximately 34 seconds and landing safely using closed loop thrust vector and throttle control. Grasshopper touched down with its most accurate precision thus far on the centermost part of the launch pad. At touchdown, the thrust to weight ratio of the vehicle was greater than one, proving a key landing algorithm for Falcon 9.
The trial balancing-onna-roaring-jet-of-fire manoeuvre took place at SpaceX’s rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas. The Grasshopper consists of a single Merlin rocket engine and a fuel tank from the company's Falcon 9 booster design (which normally has 9 engines, hence the name) plus a special landing undercarriage.
The special machine, referred to by Spacex as a Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing (VTVL) craft, is intended to help the firm develop its expertise in vertical-thrust landings using rockets. SpaceX intends initially to bring its "Dragon" space capsules in to land by rocket thrust, avoiding the inconvenience and damage resulting from parachute splashdowns offshore. It has then stated aspirations to bring back the first stages of its booster rockets to landing pads, allowing them to be reused rather than expensively thrown away into the ocean.
The day of the fully reusable orbital launch stack - with first stage and capsule both returning to precision vertical landings, and second stages perhaps carrying on to a useful career in space - may not arrive at once. When and if it does, however, the cost of space launch wil have been seriously cut - and SpaceX has already chopped it down quite severely.
The Grasshopper project is yet another of the company's activities which space enthusiasts would do well to keep an eye on. ®