SpaceX’s Falcon rocket and Dragon capsule have blazed a historic trail for commercial space companies to reach the International Space Station (and recently Orbital Sciences has followed the trail) but that doesn’t mean the company’s a one-trick pony. It’s been testing is next-gen rocket design on a testbed called Grasshopper.
On March 7th Grasshopper, which is designed to take off and land vertically back on the launch pad, achieved a successful if brief jump into the air. But this week SpaceX test-fired the 10 storey high vehicle for longer, launching it 250 meters into the air–three times higher than before. The feat is impressive because the longer the rocket is in the air and the higher it flies the more likely it is that winds will affect its attitude in the air and blow it off-course. The rocket coped ably, and landed back on the pad safely.
SpaceX’s research is important because currently its rockets are expendable vehicles: Once a stage is empty of fuel, it’s left to tumble back through the atmosphere where it burns up or splashes into the ocean. A rocket stage that can recover itself and land on the ground could save the company significant amounts of money and thus lower the cost of launching payloads into space.