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Masten Space Systems takes its Xaero suborbital rocket out for a spin


July 5, 2012

The Masten Xaero landing vertically on it's launch platform in the Mohave desert

The Masten Xaero landing vertically on it's launch platform in the Mohave desert

Image Gallery (6 images)

In celebration of the two hundred and thirty sixth anniversary of the signing of the United States Declaration of Independence from British rule, Masten Space Systems has performed a record-setting flight of their vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) Xaero suborbital rocket at the Mohave Air and Space Port. Unlike the rockets designed specifically for the NASA Lunar Lander challenge, the Xaero is the only VTVL rocket intended to carry payloads into suborbital trajectories. The test flight saw the Xaero propelled to an altitude of 444 meters (1,457 feet), before returning to Earth and making a perfect landing on its jets. However, the test flight took place on July 3 - after all, who wants to work on the fourth?

The Xaero is a suborbital rocket designed to carry NASA payloads weighing up to 10 kg (22 lbs) to an altitude of about 30 km (18.6 miles). A total flight time of five to six minutes will include five to twelve seconds of microgravity at the 0.001 g level (about 1 cm/sec2, or 0.4 in/sec2 acceleration). Going from the picture below, the Xaero is about 4.5 meters (14.7 ft) long, about a meter (3.3 ft) in diameter. It has a carbon fiber aeroshell containing fuel/oxidizer tanks and a gimbled Cyclops-AL-3 rocket engine providing a maximum thrust of 1650 N-m. The guidance, navigation, control mechanisms and software were developed by Masten to enable precision flight and vertical landing maneuvers.

The Masten Xaero vertical takeoff/vertical landing rocket being prepared for launch (Photo: Masten Space Systems)

Differences from earlier Xaero flights included replacing the original folding landing gear with fixed landing gear. The result was improved stability as well as a savings of about seven kilograms (15 lbs) in weight.

When used as a suborbital rocket, the Xaero is designed to take off and land vertically in the same place it launches from. An individual Xaero can easily be refurbished for further use after a successful flight.

    The rocket's flight profile includes:
  • vertical launch (no launch rails required);
  • acceleration to just below Mach 1 through the bulk of the atmosphere;
  • a run at full throttle to gain altitude before shutting off the engine;
  • coasting on a parabolic arc to achieve a microgravity environment;
  • descent back through the atmosphere;
  • restart of the main engine and a vertical landing on the launch pad on the Xaero's jets.

Additional tests in the near future will extend the Xaero's flight envelope to its maximum altitude of about 30 km. While not the most capable of the suborbital rocket systems currently being designed, the Xaero is much further along than most. NASA is currently accepting applications for proposed suborbital flights to be launched by the Masten Xaero.

Video of the test flight can be viewed below.

Source: Masten Space Services

About the Author
Brian Dodson From an early age Brian wanted to become a scientist. He did, earning a Ph.D. in physics and embarking on an R&D career which has recently broken the 40th anniversary. What he didn't expect was that along the way he would become a patent agent, a rocket scientist, a gourmet cook, a biotech entrepreneur, an opera tenor and a science writer. All articles by Brian Dodson

Wonderful stuff! This VTVL setup looks very promising as far as slashing the cost of suborbital missions goes. With Space-X also apparently developing a VTVL rocket, the future looks very bright in this area.


How cute - a baby rocket !


I used to think suborbital craft were sort of gimmicky and useless for anything beyond tourism. However I have seen a concept presented that would use a large mass with a tether and a magnetic clamp to accelerate the suborbital craft to orbital speed. The large mass craft towing the tether would loose a little orbital speed bringing it to a slightly lower orbit while the accent craft speeds up as the tether was pulled through the magnetic grabber (no sudden jerk or "rope burn"). The orbital energy could be returned to the mass craft towing the tether using slows but efficient ion engines.

While that idea may or may not work, it demonstrates that suborbital craft can be thought of as more than just a consolation prize to orbital flight.

Snake Oil Baron

It is very impressive that they made such a difficult landing but if there is an useful atmosphere I'm going to use wings.


Landing in this manner must be heavy on fuel. I can't imagine a scaled up version of this being a viable proposition. What sort of payload could it deliver?


A suborbital cargo rocket? The dreams of 1940's Sci-Fi authors finally coming true?! Rocket mail! Nevermind e-mail sort of makes that irrelevant.

High speed delivery of critical pharmaceuticals and other high value small stuff that's needed ASAP would be good cargo for such a vehicle.

Gregg Eshelman

Nice control software. However, same problems as DCX that MacD flew at White Sands in the early 90s, id. loss of anything (power, guidance, etc. ) = smoking hole. Wings, parachutes, etc. may not be cool, but they solve a lot of potential problems.


What happened to those rockets that were supposed to use rotors for landing?! Should be an ideal companion to this system!


Reminds me of the kind of rockets you'd see on a Bugs Bunny cartoon so many decades ago. LOL

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