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