SpaceX Grasshopper Sideways Test Launch Shows Promise Of 'Reusable Rocket' [VIDEO]

By Josh Lieberman on August 16, 2013 4:49 PM EDT

The SpaceX Grasshopper successfully launched, shifted laterally and touched down on Tuesday, in the latest test flight for the reusable rocket. (Photo: YouTube screenshot)

The rocket manufacturer SpaceX showed off its Grasshopper rocket this week, demonstrating the rocket's ability to move laterally.

In Tuesday's test flight, the 106-foot Falcon 9 Grasshopper soared 820 feet into the South Texas sky, angled so that that it was off of its flight path. The Grasshopper was able make up for this 330-foot "divert," horizontally shimmying into the correct position before touching back down from its launch pad.

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"The test demonstrated the vehicle's ability to perform more aggressive steering maneuvers than have been attempted in previous flights," SpaceX said on its website. "Grasshopper is taller than a ten story building, which makes the control problem particularly challenging. Diverts like this are an important part of the trajectory in order to land the rocket precisely back at the launch site after reentering from space at hypersonic velocity."

The Grasshopper is able to laterally maneuver mid-flight by using cold gas thrusters around the base of the rocket. On the ground, SpaceX flight engineers monitor data from the rocket's positioning sensors and adjust its path.

With the Grasshopper, SpaceX is attempting to develop a rocket that can return to its launchpad, rather then burn up in space, as rockets are currently designed to do. Such "reusable rockets" have long been a goal of aerospace companies and governments with space plans. Rockets are, of course, expensive, and using them only one time before they disintegrate upon reentry into the Earth's atmosphere is a pricey habit.

The first test flight of a reusable rocket was 20 years ago today, when the Delta Clipper Experimental (DC-X) launched at White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico, moved laterally, and then landed.

SpaceX is the only commercial company ever to perform supply missions for NASA. It has twice supplied the International Space Station, and will do so again in June 2014, when SpaceX brings ISS the first 3D printer to launch into space.

The company was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, who recently laid out plans for Hyperloop, a transportation system that aims to take passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 35 minutes.

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