SpaceX's Grasshopper test rocket flies sideways successfully

by Alan Boyle, Science Editor /  / Updated 
Image: Grasshopper test
SpaceX via YouTube

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SpaceX's Grasshopper rocket demonstrates in a new video how future launch vehicles may well lift off, do their job and then maneuver themselves for a precision landing.

During Tuesday's test, the modified Falcon 9 test rig blasted off from its Texas launch pad and rose to a height of 250 meters (820 feet) with a 100-meter (330-foot) lateral maneuver.

The rocket hovered for some moments, then swung back and made a rapid, controlled descent onto the pad.

"The test demonstrated the vehicle's ability to perform more aggressive steering maneuvers than have been attempted in previous flights," California-based SpaceX said in an advisory accompanying the YouTube video. "Grasshopper is taller than a 10-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 re-entering from space at hypersonic velocity."

In a Twitter update, SpaceX founder Elon Musk called attention to the test, which took place just a day after the billionaire revealed his Hyperloop concept for high-speed transit in California.

The single-engine Grasshopper prototype is aimed at blazing a trail for fully reusable rockets that would fly themselves back home after they've done their work. It's gone through almost a year's worth of test flights at SpaceX's rocket development facility near McGregor, Texas. Last month, the Grasshopper took its highest leap to date, to an altitude of 325 meters (1,066 feet).

SpaceX's next mission is due to use a Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket with upgraded Merlin 1D engines to put the Canadian Space Agency's Cassiope satellite into orbit on Sept. 5. The next SpaceX cargo mission to the International Space Station has just been rescheduled to take place no earlier than Jan. 17.

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Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.

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