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Elon Musk's SpaceX Plans DragonFly Landing Tests

Billionaire Elon Musk's high-flying space venture, SpaceX, has provided fresh details about its plan to test a Dragon capsule that can use retro rockets to make a soft landing on Earth — and perhaps eventually on Mars.

The prototype test project, code-named DragonFly, would be conducted at SpaceX's test facility near McGregor, Texas, according to a draft environmental assessment released by the Federal Aviation Administration. The document is part of the regulatory requirements for issuing an experimental permit for the tests.

In the 76-page FAA document, the DragonFly RLV is described as a 7-ton Dragon capsule equipped with eight SuperDraco thrusters, an integrated trunk and up to four landing legs. The program calls for a series of increasingly ambitious tests, starting with a parachute-assisted landing and proceeding to a full propulsive landing and rocket-powered hops.

DragonFly is just one of several initiatives being pursued by Musk's California-based venture to turn SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule into a fully reusable space transport system. The Texas facility is already being used for tests of a rocket prototype called the Falcon 9R, which is designed to fly itself back to a landing pad after sending up its payload.

Unmanned versions of the Dragon capsule have made four round trips to the International Space Station, including one resupply mission that wound up last weekend. Last month, Musk announced in a Twitter update that the hardware for the Dragon 2 would be unveiled on May 29. That would pave the way for the DragonRider, a version capable of ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

The DragonFly prototype's landing technology would eventually be incorporated into a future version of the seven-person DragonRider capsule. It also could be used on interplanetary trips, including a Mars mission code-named "Red Dragon" or Icebreaker. Last weekend, the 42-year-old Musk reported that he was making progress on a plan to send colonists to Mars during his lifetime.

Tip o' the Log to NASASpaceFlight.com and Transterrestrial Musings' Rand Simberg. Science editor Alan Boyle and Simberg will discuss spaceflight developments at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday on "Virtually Speaking Science."