SpaceX Grasshopper aces side-tracking reusable rocket test

SpaceX's Grasshopper test rig for the Falcon 9 reusable launch vehicle has stepped up its game, with Elon Musk's private space company demonstrating that the rocket can now not only take off and land in a straight line, but track sideways as part of the maneuver. A vital talent if Grasshopper is to land safely when put into full service, the so-called divert test saw the 106-foot rocket flying to 250m while also completing a 100m lateral shift.

After that sideways movement, Grasshopper shifted back to the center position and safely landed. "The test demonstrated the vehicle's ability to perform more aggressive steering maneuvers than have been attempted in previous flights" SpaceX said of the flight this week.

Although a 100m shift may not seem like much in the grand scheme of space travel, given the Falcon 9 test rig is taller than a ten story building it's actually a particularly troublesome – but also essential – part of the reusable rocket's responsibilities. Without it, the rocket would not be able to return precisely to the same launch pad, after having returned from hypersonic travel.

Intended to operate as a test-bed for SpaceX's eventual reusable launch platform project, Grasshopper has been undergoing multiple flight tests in the past year. Although the test this week only saw it climb to around 820 feet, a previous trial managed 1,060 feet.

Of course, the system will have to go significantly higher if it's to be of use to NASA. SpaceX plans to introduce a second version of Grasshopper – known as v1.1 – sometime after October 2013, which will stand 160 feet tall and use nine of the engines from the Falcon 9-R rocket, rather than Grasshopper v.1's single engine.

When testing begins, Grasshopper v1.1 is expected to eventually fly to heights of 300,000 feet, launching from a specially constructed pad at Spaceport America, New Mexico.