Multiple successful launches and exciting announcements in recent days have made for an eventful week: Mars One, a private company based in The Netherlands, announced its astronaut selection process for one-way trips to Mars to establish a permanent colony, starting in 2023. Virginia-based private space company Orbital Sciences successfully completed the maiden flight of its Antares rocket. A Russian Soyuz launched a resupply capsule to the ISS. A second Soyuz delivered a menagerie of animals into orbit to conduct research on the long-term effects of microgravity.
Still, I must present the week's Award for Most Jaw-Dropping Launch (and Landing!) Footage to SpaceX. The private company's Grasshopper vehicle underwent it's fifth test last week:
The Grasshopper rocket is a remarkable piece of engineering: A Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing (VTVL) vehicle designed to test the technologies involved in returning rockets to Earth intact instead of having them burn up in the atmosphere. Rapid re-usability means cost reduction - an important objective for the private company. Essentially, SpaceX is designing rocket technology that includes a return trip to the launch pad for a vertical landing. The rocket is 106 ft (32 m) tall, with a tank height of 85 ft (26 m).
SpaceX has been testing the Grasshopper at its McGregor, TX rocket development facility since 2012 with a series of test flights that have achieved substantial successive increases in altitude:
Sep 2012: 8 ft (2.5 m)
Nov 2012: 18 ft (5.5 m)
Dec 2012: 131 ft (40 m)
Mar 2013: 263 ft (80 m)
Apr 2013: 820 ft (250 m) - the leap shown in the video above.
Grasshopper's components are a Falcon 9 rocket first stage tank with a Merlin 1C engine that generates a maximum thrust of 122,000 pounds. The rocket sits on four steel and aluminum landing legs with hydraulic dampers, and a steel support structure. Nitrogen- or helium-filled carbon overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) are attached to the support structure. Propellants used in the Grasshopper VTVL vehicle include a refined kerosene fuel and liquid oxygen as the oxidizer. Grasshopper uses closed loop thrust vector and throttle control for landings.
One of the most amazing moments in the above launch and landing video comes when Grasshopper hovers at its maximum altitude, buffeted by winds strong enough to bend the rocket flames at a significant angle while Grasshopper itself holds steady against the wind, except for one slight wobble. During a week that also showcased ambitious plans for establishing the first Mars colony I can only conclude: The future really is HERE!!