Even as its Dragon spacecraft orbits Earth attached to the International Space Station following a suspenseful post-launch fix of its thrusters, its Grasshopper rocket has flown 263 feet. Yes, 263 feet. That’s the highest launch yet for the autonomous vertical-takeoff and -landing rocket. The rocket launched, hovered over Texas approximately 34 seconds and returned to the pad with its most accurate landing to date, according to the company. The rocket flies with a closed-loop guidance system that manages to keep the rocket dancing on the proverbial head of a pin in a remarkable feat of, well, rocket science.
Company founder Elon Musk proudly showed off a video of the flight, which included Grasshopper’s frequent-flying cowboy passenger, at SXSW during the weekend. Grasshopper is part of Musk’s long-term plan to build a reusable spacecraft and launch system that would bring the boost stage of the Falcon 9 rocket back to earth.
The Grasshopper test vehicle is comprised of the first-stage tank from a Falcon 9 and a Merlin 1D engine like that of the rocket that carried Dragon to the International Space Station
on March 1. Thursday’s flight was the fourth test hop, and more than doubled the altitude of the previous flight. In the future, SpaceX expects to recover the first stage of its launch vehicle by using the flight controls and guidance being developed with the Grasshopper to guide the rockets back to Earth for a pinpoint landing.