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SpaceX's reusable rocket testbed takes first hop

Posted: September 24, 2012

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SpaceX's Grasshopper testbed, a slender white rocket fitted with insect-like landing legs, took off for a brief hop at the company's Texas test site Friday.

Credit: SpaceX

The short flight of approximately 6 feet lasted less than 3 seconds, but it kicked off a campaign of more ambitious testing to demonstrate the ability to land spent rocket stages for reuse.

SpaceX's concept calls for the Falcon 9 rocket's first stage to descend and land vertically, using engine thrust to settle to a soft touchdown at or near the launch site. The first stages are currently only used once and jettisoned to fall into the ocean.

Engineers constructed a 106-foot-tall test vehicle with four steel landing legs. SpaceX also built a half-acre Grasshopper launch pad at the company's rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas.

According to SpaceX, Friday's successful flight will be followed by another test in the next several months, in which the Grasshopper will hover at roughly 100 feet.

The Grasshopper - shaped like a white cylindrical water tank - consists of a Falcon 9 first stage and a Merlin 1D engine burning kerosene and liquid oxygen to generate up to 122,000 pounds of thrust.

High-altitude supersonic tests of the Grasshopper are also planned by SpaceX, and those flights could be staged from McGregor or White Sands Missile Range, N.M.

SpaceX officials have not said when they could attempt a vertical landing on a real space launch, but Elon Musk, the company's founder and CEO, believes developing a fully reusable rocket is crucial for realizing his vision of drastically lowering the cost of space transportation.