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A Californian firm has carried out the first untethered flights of its alcohol-fuelled hover rocket, able to take off and land vertically and potentially offer ballistic flights beyond the Earth's atmosphere.

The rocket in question is the XA-0.1B (aka "Xombie") rocket from Masten Space Systems, fuelled on alcohol and liquid oxygen, seen here in an earlier tethered test:

"The flight was absolutely beautiful!" said David Masten, CEO of Masten Space. "The control systems were designed to control the vehicle to high accuracy, and worked. We landed within a few inches of the target. That's pretty amazing considering the vehicle is balanced on top of a plume of burning alcohol. It feels great watching something work exactly the way you designed it to work."

The Xombie flight didn't quite go according to plan, however. It had been meant to be a qualifying attempt at Level One of the Lunar Lander Challenge X-Prize, which would have called for an intial hover from one pad to another at least 50m away, with flight time of at least 90 seconds - followed by a return journey under the same conditions after refuelling.

But after the Xombie set down following the initial hop, engineers found that it had sustained damage to its combustion chamber. Rather than risk a catastrophic mishap, they decided to cancel the second flight and make a further Challenge attempt next month following modifications.

"We have a good handle on the problem and we're already working on a fix," said Masten's Jonathan Goff. "We should be back in the air in a week or so."

The firm is also working on a lighter, longer endurance rocket called XA-0.1E or "Xoie", able to fly a Level Two Lunar Lander X-Prize test. Into the future, the XA series rockets are intended to make suborbital flights outside the atmosphere. Unlike some other private space firms such as Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace etc, Masten intends to target unmanned research missions rather than space tourism.

In the short term, however, the company wants to succeed in the Lunar Lander Challenge. At the moment it has yet to pass even a Level One test - whereas rival firm Armadillo Aerospace scored a Level Two success earlier this month and so will scoop the $1m prize unless Masten or dark-horse contender Unreasonable Rocket can surpass its benchmark.

Armadillo, pet project of games kingpin John Carmack, scored a $350k Level One purse as the sole successful Lunar Lander Challenge contender last year. Masten has booked slots for both Level One and Level Two attempts next month, as has Unreasonable Rocket.

Hover rockets able to achieve the Level Two standard are also able potentially to reach quite high altitudes, and the Armadillo bunch at least see this as the next step. However, despite the "Lunar" tag, they aren't able to reach the moon on their own any more than an Apollo lunar module could. ®

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