SpaceX Grasshopper Flies High

by Nancy Atkinson on April 23, 2013

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SpaceX’s Grasshopper flew 250 meters (820 feet) straight up, tripling the height flown on its previous leap. The video provides a great overhead view from SpaceX’s hexacopter.

Via Twitter, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the Grasshopper was able to remain steady in its flight even on a windy day, hover and then land.

Grasshopper is a 10-story Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing (VTVL) vehicle that SpaceX has designed to test the technologies needed to return a rocket back to Earth intact. While most rockets are designed to burn up in the atmosphere during reentry, SpaceX’s rockets are being designed to return to the launch pad for a vertical landing.

This is Grasshopper’s fifth in a series of test flights, with each test demonstrating exponential increases in altitude. Last September, Grasshopper flew to 2.5 meters (8.2 feet), in November, it flew to 5.4 meters (17.7 feet), in December, it flew to 40 meters (131 feet), and then 80.1 meters (262.8 feet) in March.

Grasshopper consists of a Falcon 9 rocket first stage tank, Merlin 1D engine, four steel and aluminum landing legs with hydraulic dampers, and a steel support structure.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Peter April 23, 2013 at 4:43 AM

This is smart. I thought initially I was looking at another VTOL spaceship attempt but we’re talking about just the booster rocket – getting that back to the landing pad and using it again can reduce launch costs significantly…

zkank April 23, 2013 at 5:24 AM

More sci fi coming to fruition!
This is how rockets took off and landed in the ’50′s and ’60′s movies!

delphinus100 April 25, 2013 at 3:53 AM

And it’s the reason that takeoff and landing on rocket thrust is sometimes described as’ ‘The way God and Robert Heinlein intended…’

sardean April 23, 2013 at 5:42 AM

Wonder what the time line is for a “full” launch test, then operational use of the tech?

portablefrontier April 24, 2013 at 3:55 AM

Depends on how SpaceX answers some questions.

First, who is going to pay for this to go forward? The answer, as with over 90% of all dev funding SpaceX has received for Dragon and the Falcon 9, is NASA. And NASA, like the rest of the gov’t, will see its funding constructed by sequestration before the end of the fiscal year.

Second question centers on how much a reusable Falcon 9 first stage will weigh? To return a stage from 50-60 miles up, you need redundancy in everything from guidance, electronics, and reaction control. A returning first stage will also need fuel. All if this will raise the mass penalty of the reusable Falcon 9 first stage over its disposable brother.

Next question is what is the affect if all the added weight on the payload? A current Falcon 9 can lift only about 13 mt to LEO (200 km at 52-degrees inclination). One rule of thumb is for every 1 kg additional mass penalty at the launchpad means 3 kg in lost payload. With a 13 mt LEO capability, it won’t take much to zero-out the Falcon 9′s orbital payload.

As NASA learned with the Space Shuttle, reusability doesn’t pay for itself until a launcher is hitting around 25-50 launches a year. Anyone in the launch business will admit that is a very ambitious number and one never before reached.

One last point has to do with where the Falcon 9 reusable first stage intends to land? If it’s the Air Force Eastern Test Range at Cape Canaveral, this it will take a lot of testing before that happens. Imagine the headlines were a returning first-stage had a fault and crashed into Disney World. It Cocoa Beach?

Aqua4U April 23, 2013 at 5:51 AM

For a longest time I thought Rotary Rockets had the best concept for landing a booster… i.e. high speed rocket powered turbine blades built into the rocket body that pop out and land the rocket helicopter style! THIS idea is so much bettah! Software weighs how much?

Rotary Rockets was eventually purchased by Scaled Composites… so I thought ‘FOR SURE’ we’d be seeing more of that concept? Makes me wonder ‘what up’? ~*~

Brent Teal April 23, 2013 at 4:48 PM

spaceshipone and spaceshiptwo burt also had preliminary designs for an orbital version

delphinus100 April 25, 2013 at 4:04 AM

Actually, XCOR acquired the intellectual property of Rotary Rockets in 2002. Many of its engineers are also there.

TerryG April 23, 2013 at 5:52 AM

I’m absolutely wrapped with this. Imagine the gaping-jawed horror in competing launch company boardrooms on both sides on the Atlantic. SpaceX is going to kick some serious butt when they go fully reusable.

And hey Congress, re-arrange “The Cat”, “the Bag”, “is out of”. There’s a message here for you too.

ali poursamar April 23, 2013 at 8:45 AM

yes … I cannot believe we put up so long with boring corporate such as Boieing and Lockheed lunch vehicles for half century. way to go Elon…

newSteveZodiac April 23, 2013 at 9:49 AM

A worrying thought occurred to me about that. Once NASA has no stranglehold on rocket tech and we have lots of global multinational space companies unfettered by government interference, what’s to stop them selling a three stage “space rocket” to Iran or North Korea?

Tony Trenton April 23, 2013 at 10:57 AM

Or even Iran !

You can be sure Iran & NK . have been, and are doing everything they can to acquire as much Tech as they can beg, borrow & or steal.

Scary. Very scary!

We must Just be very careful & always be far ahead of the competition !

That is part of the price we pay for having a free society

It has to be worth it because we wouldn’t have the benefits we see every day otherwise.

No such thing as a free lunch.

ali poursamar April 23, 2013 at 11:09 AM

Guys relax, i am quite sure iranian and north korean societies never can pose any long term danger to western world. NOT because their people lack intercultural will or brain power to tackle such complicated subjects such as rocket science BUT because their society and community have not been wired for grass root sustainable growth in science and technology. An start-up like SpaceX will never take shape in iranian society, People like Elon MusK will never get chance to shine in north Korea. Because basically Iranian and north Korean are not free to do what they love to do with their life… that’s the secret sauce that made America such an a kick ass place to live and work and dream!

Jessica Darko April 23, 2013 at 2:37 PM

There’s no such thing as security by obscurity. You cannot have stability– or rest easy– based on the delusion that you’ve disarmed those people you don’t trust. Eventually they will arm, and the truth is, ICBMs and WMDs are not exactly technically difficult.

If you want a peaceful world, focus on using free trade and freedom to incentivize people to act well– after all, free trade is non-coercive, it is a peaceful activity.

You will not get a peaceful world by using violence to disarm others for ideological reasons– using violence against them gives them a reason and incentive to use violence in response.

StCredZero April 23, 2013 at 1:04 PM

Those companies based in the US rely on government goodwill to operate their space related business. The European ones are also influenced by the US in a variety of ways. ICBMs can be built with 1940′s technology. Iran and DPRK don’t need to buy them if they are patient enough, and no big company is stupid enough to sell to them. (I should hope.)

"Me" April 23, 2013 at 3:54 PM

Good point. We could sell it to a friendly country now, but they may turn on the USA (a pay-back) for an action that may happen 5, 10, 20 or more yrs from now. That thought crossed my mind in the 1970′s. Again, good point.

David Krauss April 24, 2013 at 6:34 AM

Because they don’t sell rockets, they sell launches. Exporting rockets is illegal for exactly that reason. Anyway the difference between Boeing and SpaceX is only size. Once SpaceX hires more lobbyists, they will be equal. NASA never owned any technology. That would be bad for the economy, and would have been quite ironic during the space race between the capitalist and communist worlds.

Also, North Korea lacks the budget, and the former USSR is far more likely to leak the technology. Not because those in charge of technical development are unscrupulous, but because of all the spare parts in poorly policed warehouses.

delphinus100 April 25, 2013 at 3:49 AM

In the case of US companies, Google: ITAR. It already does forbid the export of anything considered ‘munitions.’

It’s sufficiently broad enough, however, to have harmed US commercial launch competitiveness.

Warren White April 23, 2013 at 11:38 AM

boring corporate such as Boieing and Lockheed lunch vehicles for half century

=========== ==
Boeing and Lockheed were producing what Nasa designed or requested…
Remember that Nasa’s boondoggle shuttle had a monopoly on US space launch capability for decades…. cynically crushing the private US space capability…
The entire 12 flight SpaceX resupply contract is for $1.6 billion, less than the cost of a single Nasa shuttle flight..
The US space program is too important to be further entrusted to our bloated, pork driven Fed Govt and Nasa…
Private enterprise innovation, efficiency, spirit is taking the lead.

ali poursamar April 23, 2013 at 11:45 AM

Shuttle was cool, though, it gives us our super cool Space Station. but cannot agree more with what you said on dawn of new era upon us… hope i live long enough to see its full blossom

StCredZero April 23, 2013 at 12:57 PM

If not for the shuttle, we could have built the ISS for much less. The shuttle was an expensive boondoggle that held us back.

arel April 23, 2013 at 9:47 AM

Its easy to hammer the government on cost. But Spacex and others are in debt to and stand on the shoulders of huge amount of work and technical expertise from decades of a government led space program which got us to the moon and now to Mars. It became hugely inefficient but without that initial huge investment from the state private companies would not have been able to make the advances they now can. Government must be efficient but it also has an important role in pushing enterprise that has no monetary profit… like exploration of the universe for the sake of it.

StCredZero April 23, 2013 at 12:54 PM

Rapt. Points for vocabulary, though.

TerryG April 23, 2013 at 2:04 PM

Cheers StCredZero. Thanks for the correction. Goes to show I’m not this rapt very often. ;-)

StCredZero April 23, 2013 at 7:17 PM

And that’s a wrap! :)

Brenda Jean Louise April 23, 2013 at 6:53 AM

I’m amazed that there is no significant burning of the support feet or any serious heat damage to the rocket base when returning to ground. That’s some 10 story high rocket you have there. BTW, what happened to the cowboy dummy you had standing on the support stand?

Lorin Ionita April 24, 2013 at 8:12 AM

It’s still there… or at least I think I see it when seeing the rocket from the distance.

ali poursamar April 23, 2013 at 8:46 AM

Where was the Cowboy this time? Filming on the Hexacopter ?

newSteveZodiac April 23, 2013 at 9:42 AM

This is very thrilling indeed but the slower exhaust flame seems to be toasting the legs somewhat, there’s a lot of smoke coming from them, especially when the rocket is descending, presumably because the flame is blown back towards the vehicle. I expect on the descent after separation it will be stabilised and slowed by drogues but I wonder how much rocket scientists know about exhausts and flame fronts when the vehicle is travelling backwards. i suspect Spacex will have quite a learning curve in that respect but they clearly like a challenge.

delphinus100 April 25, 2013 at 3:59 AM

An operational stage would have legs retracted against its sides until just prior to landing, much like this CG demo:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sWFFiubtC3c

fleinkantarell April 23, 2013 at 9:48 AM

This is so damned cool. Has watced this video multiple times :) Vaiting for the full scale test.

Rick Papo April 23, 2013 at 10:16 AM

For those who haven’t been following the progress of this project in more detail, the word is that after a few more tests like this from McGregor, Texas, they will have a new test rocket, based on the taller and more capable Falcon 9 1.1. It will have new, retractable landing gear, and will be tested going up to nearly 60 miles up. The tests will be performed at White Sands, so as not to interfere with airline traffic and for public safety in general.

In parallel with all this, the company has said they will be doing some tests with the live boosters starting this summer. That is, when the first stage of a Falcon launch is done with its real work (starting a satellite on its way), and has separated from the second stage, it will retro-fire for a bit so it doesn’t descend quite so destructively as it has in the past, and then fire again before hitting the ocean. The initial goal is to have it hover and “land” on the sea, with the final goal being to have it return to the launch site (or close to it) and land on a prepared pad.

Fun stuff!

newSteveZodiac April 24, 2013 at 11:54 AM

Thanks for the extra info, so the initial retro fire will make sure it will never be going backwards too fast.

wtpayne April 23, 2013 at 12:27 PM

It might be just my imagination, but the engine does not seem so large, nor the acceleration off the launch-pad so quick as one sees with Grasshopper’s full-scale brethren. Is scaling this up going to be a challenge? — Particularly in light of some of the other comments that have been made about toasty landing-gear.

Mind you, if it is physically possible, it can be done, (with enough perseverence).

Rick Papo April 23, 2013 at 12:34 PM

What you are seeing is only one engine, albeit one of the new, more powerful Merlin 1D engines. This is because this test is of how the rocket will behave after the satellite boost phase is over, and the rocket is almost empty of fuel. It will be quite light compared to before, and so will not need as much thrust. They might use all nine engines for the initial slowdown from boost velocity, but they should only need the one engine for the final touchdown. The tests aren’t about getting the rocket up (they’ve pretty much mastered that); they’re about getting it down in one piece.

wtpayne April 23, 2013 at 1:16 PM

Ah. That makes sense. Nice. Now, for their next trick, they should get two of them to juggle with a Tesla, balancing it on it’s nose; a bit like a scaled up version of this: http://www.geek.com/news/these-quadcopters-are-juggling-an-inverted-pendulum-1540718/

Marco Schuster April 23, 2013 at 2:49 PM

Please reupload the video – Germans cant play it because of the GEMA music licensing issue…

Ish April 23, 2013 at 11:23 AM

SpaceX = More bang for the buck!$!

clark aungst April 23, 2013 at 7:46 PM

Impressive. But how will this advance our current weapons technologies?

Brenda Jean Louise April 24, 2013 at 1:13 PM

Already, you want to kill someone with this rocket! That’s not it’s intended mission. The technology behind this is to be able to land a crew-ship in a flat area so they can reconnoiter on planets with gravity and atmosphere for life and useful elements and minerals. But I’m sure that they will figure out how to militarize the technology so they can land some storm troopers to kill the local inhabitants.

delphinus100 April 25, 2013 at 3:54 AM

‘The Military’ has had VTOL vehicles for over half a century. They’re called…helicopters.

Brenda Jean Louise April 25, 2013 at 10:31 PM

True for this planet. Not true for landing on the Moon, asteroids and Mars. And when Igor Sikorsky invented the helicopter, it was intended to be used to save lives in perilous places. But when someone took their machine gun and hung it over the side, they found out that they could kill a lot more enemy from the air rather than from the ground. The Apache Helicopter can fire exploding ammo to kill the enemy up to three miles away using it’s infrared monitors to detect people either day or night.

blackylawless April 24, 2013 at 1:20 PM

A helpful analogy is offered below, though, one pair reflects failure, the other, success.

Fisker Automotive : Orbital Sciences

Telsa Motors : SpaceX

ali poursamar April 25, 2013 at 12:21 PM

awesome analogy, orbital just spend whole bunch of their R&D budget to put a piece of rock in orbit…only before their rocket become totally unplunged 10 minutes into the lunch

blackylawless April 26, 2013 at 12:04 AM

Yeah, and also, the first pair is a bit more tied to heavy duty government subsidy. Note that Orbital Sciences is located in a region not known for the concentration of aerospace engineers, but rather, lobbyists (Northern Virginia). SpaceX, on the other hand, is based in Southern California (LA Basin), a region known to have the greatest concentration of aerospace engineers of any major metro. It was Elon’s reason for locating there, rather than Santa Clara Valley.

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