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September 26, 2011

SpaceX Plans to Test Reusable Suborbital VTVL Rocket in Texas

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

SpaceX (News - Alert) has applied for a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) permit to operate an experimental reusable launch vehicle (RLV) at its McGregor, Texas test site. The Grasshopper RLV is bound to stir up comment among numerous space circle and will, no doubt, soon be a subject of yet another animated SpaceX video. Kudos to HobbySpace for coming up with the story.

The vertical takeoff/vertical landing (VTVL) Grasshopper RLV consists of a Falcon 9 first stage tank, a single Merlin-1D engine, four steel landing legs and a support structure, plus other pressurization tanks attached to the support structure, according to the FAA application document. It will stand at 106 feet tall, and use the Merlin-1D's primary fuel and oxidizer, RP1 kerosene and liquid oxygen.

Testing of Grasshopper will take up to three years, and will require the construction of a launch pad and other support infrastructure at McGregor, SpaceX's current rocket engine test facility. SpaceX may run up to 70 suborbital launches per year, with the number assuming both potential multiple launches per day and “potential launch failures.”

In the first two phases of testing, Grasshopper would tax up to 670 feet above ground level, then throttle down to touch back down on the pad around 45 seconds after lifting off. Phase 3 would be a series of incremental tests expanding the envelope from 670 feet up to 11,500 feet, with a maximum test duration of around 160 seconds.

How you see this development depends on what hat you might wear -- and all hats might be right. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has previously expressed a fondness for VTVL technology, especially if you want to land and take off from a planetary-style body, such as the Moon or Mars. SpaceX's flashy Commercial Crew Development (CCDEV) video ends with a SpaceX Dragon space capsule landing a crew of four on the surface of a red planet (Mars), and then panning across the landing site to reveal a habitat module and what is presumably a return assent craft in the background. By this form of Kremlinology, Grasshopper represents the first steps towards a lunar and/or Mars RLV.

Grasshopper could also be an experimental path to a future Earth-based suborbital craft, but that seems be less likely since Musk has expressed little interest to date in the sub-orbital market. If it was, it would put an interesting spin on Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin efforts to build a suborbital vehicle, putting two cyberspace moguls into direct competition for reaching real space.

Doug Mohney is a contributing editor for TMCnet and a 20-year veteran of the ICT space. To read more of his articles, please visit columnist page.

Edited by Jennifer Russell

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