While NASA struggles to keep projects afloat amid a widespread government shutdown, SpaceX continues to push the boundaries of aerospace engineering. Last week, the company more than doubled the previous height record of its remarkable Grasshopper rocket system. The reusable, vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing (VTVL) rocket hit a peak altitude of 744 meters before slowly settling back down to the ground. The whole flight took about a minute and a half, and went off without a hitch. The video below was captured using a drone-mounted camera at about two-thirds the Grasshopper’s final height, a perspective that offers a jaw-dropping look at the system’seasy, graceful up-and-down action.
The Grasshopper system could lead to a major overhaul in how we get objects like satellites into space. By returning slowly and relatively gently, the vehicle could hypothetically bring delicate objects (like squishy humans) back down to the surface. Since no part of the system is ejected or left to burn up in the atmosphere, there’s little waste involved with these launches. Perhaps most importantly, since the rocket can perform pinpoint landings in a close approximation of its takeoff state, the time to reset for another launch is both shorter and cheaper than ever before.
This was the final launch for the pioneering Grasshopper v1.0, which now appears to have been a small-scale test for the project’s actual aims. Grasshopper v1.1 will be built with the Falcon 9 v1.1 launch vehicle, which is considerably larger than its predecessor; in all, the Grasshopper v1.1 will be more than twice the overall length of version 1.0. Where last week’s height record went to a vehicle using just a single Merlin 1D engine, the high-altitude tests coming in the next two years or so will use an array of nine, all firing at once.
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