The final test of the experimental reusable launch vehicle sees the rocket soar over 2,000 feet, an altitude higher than any of its previous flights.
Disposable multi-stage rockets continue to be the most frequently used vehicle to launch cargo into space. The most famous incarnation being the Saturn V rockets that carried the Apollo missions into orbit. These launches cost millions of dollars and are seen by some as wasteful, given that the rocket is designed to break off and burn up in the Earth's atmosphere. This is one of the many reasons that lead to the introduction of the reusable Space Shuttle, which has since been retired. It seems SpaceX believes that reusable launch vehicles are still worth pursuing as it has recently carried out its final test on its new vertical take-off and landing launch vehicle, the Grasshopper v1.0, reporting a new record breaking height for the craft.
The Grasshopper is a 10-story high, sub-orbital launch vehicle designed to serve as the first stage of a multi-stage launch system. It is unique in its design by not only being reusable but also being the first launch vehicle to land vertically after take-off. The version 1.0 Grasshopper is built from a Falcon 9 first stage fuel tank, a Merlin-1D engine and four landing legs which provide structural stability. This first iteration of the Grasshopper achieved an altitude of around 820 feet in its initial testing in 2011 before making its final voyage last week where it doubled its previous flight test to reach an altitude of 2,000 feet. This was recorded close up via a high-definition camera mounted on a remotely operated hexacopter (video). According to SpaceX founder and Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk, the Grasshopper rocket is capable of performing a successful landing with the accuracy of a helicopter.
Grasshopper v1.0's final flight lasted 80 seconds and the rocket will now be retired. It is set to be replaced by the new and improved Grasshopper v1.1. This new incarnation is set to feature the Falcon 9 v1.1 first stage fuel tank, which is over double the height of its v1.0 predecessor. It will also boast a compliment of nine Merlin-1D engines over the v1.0's single engine and will feature retractable landing legs for better aerodynamics in reaching higher altitudes.
A standard Falcon 9 launch today costs $54 million, with $200,000 allocated for fuel. The majority of the launch cost comes from building the rocket, which flies only once. It's easy to see why the accountants at SpaceX have their fingers crossed for future research into the Grasshopper launch vehicle.