PayPal billionaire Elon Musk is one of the geniuses behind SpaceX’s Grasshopper rocket. It has flown higher than any rocket of its type, to also attempt — and accomplish — a safe and pinpoint landing back on Earth. The Grasshopper rocket truly flies high, and can land on the proverbial dime.
Last March, SpaceX’s Grasshopper flew 80-odd meters into the air before landing successfully. In June (though the video was just published this weekend, and was shot from a hexacopter), the Grasshopper easily beat its old record, launching to a height of some 1,066 feet (325 meters), hovering momentarily, then landing perfectly on the Earth on its pad, in spite of wind during the test flight.
Just how high is 1,066 feet, really?
The Grasshopper is a VTVL rocket. That stands for vertical takeoff, vertical landing. For it to break the thousand-foot-mark is an important milestone. A new set of sensors had to be developed to get something that ungainly to descend perfectly and land smoothly. The sensors needed to be able to get an accurate fix on the rocket’s position as it descended.
Just how high is the 1,066 feet that the Grasshopper achieved? It’s higher than Manhattan’s Chrysler building, London’s Shard, or the Sydney Tower. No easy task to get it to fly that high, and safely and accurately descend — ask the Russians how difficult it can be to launch even one rocket accurately without it blowing up, let alone bothering about landing it accurately and in one piece.
What are SpaceX’s goals for the Grasshopper?
SpaceX would like to make the Grasshopper rocket reliable enough to be able to reuse much more of it than is possible with current rockets. If SpaceX can make their Grasshopper rocket reliable and consistent enough for routine use, they can be able to save the rocket’s boosters, rather than merely dumping them into the ocean, as is the current practice.
That makes the sensor pack aboard the Grasshopper extremely important to the overall success of the rocket and SpaceX’s future plans. It is highly accurate, and in addition to its existing sensors and F9-R control algorithms, it’s equipped with a new high accuracy sensor that allowed the rocket to bring itself safely down from its new record altitude.
All of the other parts of the Grasshopper rocket also are vital to how well it performs and lands. These parts include a Falcon 9 first stage, a Merlin 1D engine, steel and aluminium landing legs with hydraulic dampers, and a steel support structure.
If Elon Musk and his SpaceX project can make their goal of reusable rockets work, that will be a major step towards making space travel more economical and ecologically friendly.
It’s easy to crash and blow up a rocket, but much more difficult to do what Elon Musk and SpaceX did with the Grasshopper. It takes some serious hardware and engineering know-how.
There are some optimists who claim that space tourism is just a year out. Perhaps they’re right, if rockets like the Grasshopper can achieve the same level of pinpoint accuracy in larger-scale vehicles with humans as passengers.
Until then, it’s still pretty amazing that the SpaceX Grasshopper can fly high and land on a dime. When it gets perfected for larger rockets, sign me up!
Written by: Douglas Cobb
Here’s the video of the Grasshopper’s flight and landing: