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SpaceX Flies Most Complicated Grasshopper Test Yet

SpaceX's Grasshopper during the Aug. 13 test. Credit: SpaceX photo

WASHINGTON — Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) on Aug. 13 successfully staged the most complicated flight yet of its Grasshopper test vehicle, sending the vertical-takeoff-and-landing rocket 250 meters into the air and steering it 100 meters laterally before bringing it in for a landing. 

The test took place at SpaceX’s rocket test facility near McGregor, Texas, where the company has conducted all Grasshopper flights to date. The Hawthorne, Calif., rocket maker is also making preparations to fly Grasshopper at Spaceport America in New Mexico, where it would be possible to send the vehicle to higher altitudes.

Grasshopper flights out of McGregor have a ceiling of 760 meters. Flights out of Spaceport America, located near the White Sands Missile Range, could go up to 100 kilometers under the commercial spaceport license the latter site has with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. 

Grasshopper is a part of SpaceX’s campaign, first announced in 2011, to develop an orbital rocket with a reusable first stage. The test vehicle is based closely on the first stage of SpaceX’s operational Falcon 9 rocket but has landing legs and is powered by a single kerosene-fueled Merlin 1-D engine.

Credit: SpaceX

The Grasshopper tests are only able to demonstrate the final phase of a reusable first stage’s mission. SpaceX has other tests planned that would test the maneuvers a reusable first stage would have to make at altitude, after separation of the second stage.

Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of SpaceX, has said the company would attempt such a test this year on a mission of the company’s new Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket. He said the vehicle’s first stage would be maneuvered prior to coming back down in the ocean.

The Falcon 9 v1.1., an upgraded vehicle featuring more powerful engines than those on the Falcon 9 rockets flown to date, along with a new payload fairing, is tentatively scheduled to debut in early September. That mission is slated to loft the Canadian Space Agency’s Cassiope space weather satellite to low Earth orbit from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

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