Forgive the pun, but it was just too easy! Yes, SpaceX is once again making news with its Grasshopper reusable rocket system, which set the record for highest altitude ascended. On its sixth jump, which took place on June 14th, the rocket made it to a height of 325 meters (1066 feet) above the Earth and remained airborne for a minute and 8 seconds.
With each jump and new record set, Grasshopper and its inventors are bringing the age of affordable, commercial space flight that much closer. Seeing as how the goal is to send a rocket into orbit it and bring it back in one piece, this latest milestone might sound modest. But a quick look at each successive jump clearly shows that the Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing (VTVL) rocket is making serious progress, and in a short stretch of time.
Consider the first jump which took place in September of 2012, where the rocket reached a height of 1.8 meters (6 feet) and remained aloft for three seconds. Sounds pretty meager, no? But less than two months later, the rocket was able to remain in the air for 8 seconds and reached a height of 5.4 meters (17.7 feet).
On its third run, performed in December of 2012, the rocket got 40 meters (131 feet) into the air, remained there for 29 seconds, and happened to be the first test flight where a cowboy mannequin was strapped to the rocket. On the fourth and fifth try, which were performed in March and April of this year, the rocket reached a height of 80 and then 250 meters (262 and 820 feet), remaining airborne for 34 and then 61 seconds.
This not only confirms that the rocket’s progress is exponential when it comes to height, but that its thrust-to-weight ratio has been improving vastly. Another big milestone here was the fact that for the first time, the rocket made use of its full navigation sensor suite with the F9-R closed loop control flight algorithms.
In previous tests, the rocket relied on other rocket sensors which were not as accurate, but this time around, SpaceX was directly controlling the rocket based on these new sensor readings, a move which has increased the level of accuracy in sensing the distance between Grasshopper and the ground.
To quote Nietzsche: “He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk.” At this rate, averaging for the total rate of increase, I’d say the Grasshopper should be reaching Low-Earth Orbit (2000 km above sea level) by its 11th or 12th jump. And using the same figures, I figure the jump will be taking place sometime in May 2014. Somebody ought to be organizing a pool!