Masten Space Systems has been testing variations of its "Xombie" sub-orbital rocket out in the deserts of California for several years now, but the company and NASA just announced a new milestone: a test at the end of March saw the Xombie rise 1,626 feet into the air during an 80-second flight. According to NASA, that's the highest altitude and distance the Xombie rocket has achieved thus far. The milestone goes beyond just height, however: the flight was controlled by a developmental navigation system and was designed to simulate landing on another celestial body such as the moon or Mars. Furthermore, the flight path and trajectory was meant to mimic the speed and angle of a planetary landing.

Masten has been letting other researchers test their equipment during its rocket flights, but now NASA is using it to try out prototype landing instruments and other technology that may play a role in future missions to the moon or Mars. "Two hundred meters above the Martian or lunar surface is not the place you want to be using an innovative new sensor or landing algorithm for the first time," said Christopher Baker of the Flight Opportunities Program at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base. "We are working to create an environment that provides opportunities to test these systems a little closer to home." Masten is hardly the only company working on such a rocket — in late December, the SpaceX Grasshopper successfully hovered at the more modest height of about 12 stories.