Grasshopper flies again—but what about the next Falcon 9 launch?

Grasshopper, the reusable launch vehicle (RLV) technology demonstrator developed by SpaceX, has made another hop. SpaceX released late Friday a video (above) of a June 14 flight by Grasshopper at the company’s test site near McGregor, Texas. Grasshopper flew to an altitude of 325 meters before landing. The video provides a unique point of view for the flight: a camera mounted on a “hexacopter” drone hovering nearby at around the peak altitude achieved by the Grasshopper.

A key element of this flight, SpaceX noted in the video’s description on YouTube, is the vehicle used “its full navigation sensor suite with the F9-R closed loop control flight algorithms to accomplish a precision landing.” This flight used a higher accuracy sensor that enabled a precision landing.

(The video’s release is more evidence of the company’s often unconventional media strategy. The video was released three weeks after the test, on a Friday night of what, for many Americans, is part of a long holiday weekend because of the Independence Day holiday Thursday. Also, the video was announced on Twitter by Elon Musk Friday night, but not by SpaceX’s own Twitter account; nor was there a formal press release or other announcement by the company. Recall that, back in December, they announced another Grasshopper test late on a Sunday evening the day before Christmas Eve.)

While SpaceX has been enjoying success with its Grasshopper vehicle, its Falcon rocket appears to be suffering delays. In March, after the Falcon 9 launch of a Dragon spacecraft on a cargo mission to the International Space Station, company officials announced an aggressive launch schedule: a launch in June of a Canadian satellite, CASSIOPE, followed by two launches in July of commercial communications satellites. All of those launches would be of the new “v1.1″ variant of the Falcon 9 that features new Merlin 1D engines and a stretched first stages; those launches would also be the first to use a payload fairing.

June has come and gone without the CASSIOPE launch (also the first from SpaceX’s new launch facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.) A launch manifest maintained by NASA now lists that launch as scheduled for September 5. The next Dragon mission to the ISS, previously scheduled for late September, is now scheduled for early December from Cape Canaveral, with three commercial Falcon 9 launches (the two commercial GEO communications satellites once planned for July, as well as eight ORBCOMM satellites) now planned for between September and November, according to Spaceflight Now’s manifest.

What’s causing the delay? SpaceX has not been forthcoming, but they have been extensively testing the new Falcon 9 v1.1 first stage and its Merlin 1D engines at the McGregor site. Joseph Abbott of the Waco Tribune, who has closely followed SpaceX’s tests in nearby McGregor, reported SpaceX was performing engine tests as recently as July 4, according to one YouTube video taken by a spectator. Abbott had previously confirmed from SpaceX that the stage being tested is for the CASSIOPE mission, having completed “development testing” on June 19 and, at that time, moving into “stage acceptance tests” in preparation for the launch.

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