SpaceX, the Southern California-based space company, has reportedly successfully tested a reusable rocket that it hopes will reduce the cost of traveling to space.
The company — officially known as Space Exploration Technologies Corporation — released a video Monday showing the test flight of its Grasshopper rocket, which took off and hovered twelve stories off the ground. After launch, it hovers in the air — and lands vertically.
“The 12-story flight marks a significant increase over the height and length of hover of Grasshopper’s previous test flights, which took place earlier this fall. In September, Grasshopper flew to 1.8 meters (6 feet), and in November, it flew to 5.4 meters (17.7 feet/2 stories) including a brief hover,” SpaceX said in statement issued Sunday.
The test was conducted December 17 at SpaceX’s rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas. The company had conducted a number of tests and this was widely seen as its most advanced test to date.
Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of the company, tweeted on Monday, saying the launch was a success.
“To provide a little perspective on the size of Grasshopper, we added a 6ft cowboy to the rocket,” he wrote on Twitter.
The Grasshopper — which consists of a Falcon 9 rocket first stage, Merlin 1D engine, four steel landing legs with hydraulic dampers, and a steel support structure — is the space company’s first attempt to create the world’s first fully reusable orbital launch system. The plan revolves around a modified version of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle design, according to Musk. The current design relies on a version of the flyback booster concept – one where all of the vehicle’s components return back to Earth for reuse.
According to Musk, the first and second stages would return back to the launch site under their own power. Musk has repeatedly acknowledged the challenges in creating such a system, saying his design team and engineers are working around the clock in order to perfect the flight system.
“This is a very difficult thing to do. Even for an expendable launch vehicle, where you don’t attempt any recovery, you only get maybe two to three percent of your lift-off weight to orbit. That’s not a lot of room for error,” noted Musk during an earlier appearance in November. “I wasn’t sure it could be solved, but relatively recently I’ve come the conclusion it can be solved and SpaceX is going to try and do it. We could fail, I’m not saying we’re certain of success, but we’re going to try to do it.”
SpaceX says it expects to continue testing, adding that it expects the system to become fully operation sometime in 2014.
The test comes as Spacex continues to vie to become the leading company to replace NASA. The U.S. space agency has announced a number of deals with SpaceX, saying it hopes to use private companies for a number of missions, including resupplying the International Space Station (ISS). The company has already sent a pair of successful missions to the ISS in August and October, beginning the first of at least a dozen regular flights to the orbiting outpost.