One Big Hop for SpaceX

On Monday, upstart space launch company SpaceX announced the results of a test flight of its new "Grasshopper" experimental lift vehicle.

In a 29-second test flight conducted in McGregor, Texas, on Dec. 17, the Grasshopper rose 131 feet into the air, said the company. After briefly hovering at that height, Grasshopper successfully conducted a controlled landing back on its launch pad "using closed loop thrust vector and throttle control." In other words, it retraced its steps -- after going up, it came right back down to where it started from.

This month's test builds on two previous test flights of the Grasshopper, a 10-story-tall launch vehicle consisting of a Falcon 9 rocket's first stage, a Merlin 1D engine, four steel landing legs with hydraulic dampers, and a steel support structure. In September, Grasshopper's first flight took it up all of 6 feet. In November, the vessel rose 18 feet into the air, hovered, and then descended.

Privately held SpaceX, the space exploration company built by PayPal founder and Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA  ) Chairman Elon Musk, says it will continue conducting more and more sophisticated test flights of Grasshopper over the coming months, with the ultimate goal of developing a fully reusable launch rocket that can carry a payload into space, then return to Earth for more.

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