SpaceX Grasshopper Makes Biggest Hop Yet

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Privately owned space launch company SpaceX announced over the weekend that its experimental Grasshopper lift vehicle has recently made its tallest leap yet -- and returned safely to earth.

SpaceX is the third of PayPal founder Elon Musk's big tech companies, which include solar-power lessor SolarCity (NASDAQ: SCTY  ) and electric-car maker Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSLA  ) . It's also the only one said to be currently profitable -- and the only one Musk has not yet floated in a public IPO.

SpaceX's Grasshopper vertical takeoff and vertical landing vehicle most recently made headlines in December, when it launched 131 feet into the air, hovered there briefly, and then lowered itself back to earth "using closed loop thrust vector and throttle control." On Thursday last week, though, Grasshopper easily beat that record, rising twice as high -- 262.8 feet, or the height of a 24-story building -- there hovering for a full 34 seconds, and then landing safely, again "using closed loop thrust vector and throttle control."

This was Grasshopper's fourth successful test flight in six months, over which time the Grasshopper has hopped increasingly tall building-heights -- from 6 feet initially, all the way up to last week's 263-foot giant leap. SpaceX's ultimate goal is to get Grasshopper (or a successor thereto) all the way into orbit, deposit a payload there, then drop back down to earth, and lower itself safely back onto its launchpad under its own power.

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