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Elon Musk's new re-usable, hovering rocket ship in first test liftoff

Grasshopper hops

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SpaceX, the upstart space startup founded and bankrolled by famous internet nerdwealth kingpin Elon Musk, says it has carried out the first test of a new rocket craft which could lead to development of fully reusable spacecraft.

The company announced yesterday:

On Friday, September 21, SpaceX's Grasshopper vertical takeoff and landing test vehicle (VTVL) took its first test flight hop from the company's rocket testing facility in McGregor, Texas.

The short hop of approximately 6 feet is the first major milestone for Grasshopper, and a critical step toward a reusable first stage for SpaceX's proven Falcon 9 rocket ...

Testing of Grasshopper continues, with the next big milestone - a hover at roughly 100 feet - expected in the next several months.

Grasshopper uses the fuel tank of the Falcon 9 first stage, but has only one Merlin rocket engine (as opposed to 9 on the real deal), so it is only a test vehicle. It is evidently intended to prove the technology needed to let a rocket descend to a vertical hovering landing. Such kit has already been proven in Moon and Mars lander missions, but is seldom employed for setdowns on Earth - and the job of putting down a towering 100-foot tall booster as opposed to a relatively handy capsule could be particularly challenging.

The idea would be that in future a Falcon 9 rocket stack would lift off as normal: but rather than waiting until the first stage had run out of fuel to separate and fire up the second stage, the lower booster would break away while it still had fuel left - enough to come down to a hovering pad landing. This would rob the whole stack of some lifting power, but on the other hand it would avoid the need to crash the pricey first stage into the sea and destroy it every time. This could potentially slash the costs of space launch: which is the avowed mission of SpaceX.

There's synergy here too for the radical rocket company, as it wants rocket vertical-landing ability on its space capsule – the Dragon – as well as on the booster. The Dragon has already flown to orbit and back twice, on the second occasion docking successfully with the International Space Station to deliver a load of non-essential supplies*, but at present it comes down in conventional fashion under parachutes to an ocean splashdown.

Despite this already putting Dragon in a class of only two spacecraft - following the departure of the space shuttle, only Russia's Soyuz vessels can bring substantial cargoes down from space as well as carry them up - Elon Musk wants more. Specifically, he plans to add "Draco" rockets to the Dragon. These could boost a Dragon full of astronauts clear of a disintegrating booster stack in the event of a mishap on launch: more routinely they would be used to bring the capsule in to a vertical precision landing on a pad ashore, so removing the costs and time-wasting caused by fishing it out of the sea each time it came down. (Indeed the company has ambitiously stated that Dragons would be equally capable of making rocket landings on Mars.)

So, if SpaceX can deliver rocket setdown technology satisfactorily, it will be able to re-use both the first stage and the capsule from a Falcon 9/Dragon stack: which should cut costs very significantly as those two are by far the most expensive pieces. There's no public indication of plans to re-use the second stage as well, though these may well exist. If they do, they are quite likely to involve second stages being given some task in space as opposed to down on Earth - such things have already been done with other second stages.

SpaceX is going from strength to strength at the moment, having now outstripped all national space agencies except that of Russia in terms of capsules (European ATV ships can't return to Earth). It is set to make its second flight to the ISS next month, and plans to launch what will be the world's most powerful booster stack bar none as soon as next year. If the company can keep this pace up, it's not impossible to imagine – in line with Musk's grandiose ambitions – that it might be landing its Dragons on Mars within the lifetimes of some people reading this.

Its commercial rivals, by contrast, have achieved comparatively little, and even NASA itself seems badly bogged down. ®

*The mission was the first test of Dragon's docking ability and might easily have had to be aborted for some reason, so naturally nothing essential was carried.

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