SpaceX’s Grasshopper leaping to NM spaceport

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Posted: Wednesday, May 8, 2013 12:01 am | Updated: 1:10 am, Wed May 8, 2013.

In search of wider fields and taller skies, SpaceX’s Grasshopper rocket is making the leap from McGregor to New Mexico.

Company communications director Christina Ra said the move to Spaceport America near Las Cruces, announced Tuesday, would allow the rocket — a testbed for vertical takeoff and landing technology — to soar beyond the 2,500-foot limit imposed on McGregor testing by its Federal Aviation Administration permit. It also will give the rocket room to move side-to-side to try different trajectories on the spaceport’s 18,000 acres.

SpaceX signed a three-year lease for land and facilities, according to a press release issued Tuesday by spaceport officials.

Other Grasshopper testing would remain in McGregor, Ra said, along with testing on engines for the Dragon orbiter and Falcon rockets, including a series of louder-than-normal tests beginning with a 10-second rocket firing provisionally set for Wednesday.

Ra said it was too early to tell how many jobs, if any, would be moved from McGregor to New Mexico.

“We don’t know yet what that makeup will look like,” she said. “It depends on what happens in the next few years.”

Grasshopper is a testbed for technology that would eventually allow rocket stages — currently orbiting Earth as space junk or breaking up as they re-enter Earth’s atmosphere — to return to the launch site to be reused, bringing down the cost of spaceflight.

SpaceX already is applying what it’s learned from Grasshopper. Testing at McGregor has begun on the Falcon 9-R, a new iteration of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket. The “R” stands for “reusable,” according to a tweet by company founder and CEO Elon Musk. Another tweet showed workers at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., examining a helium-driven telescoping leg for the rocket.

Spaceport America, adjacent to the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, will be the base for Virgin Galactic, billionaire Richard Branson’s effort at commercial spaceflight. The vehicle for those flights, SpaceShip Two — successor to SpaceShip-One, which won the Ansari X-Prize in 2004 as the first privately funded manned vehicle to reach space and return, then repeat the feat — recently completed its first powered flight in Mojave, Calif.

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