SpaceX has pulled off another remarkable feat of space rocket recycling, capturing both pieces of a nose cone shield from its most recent launch, using giant nets suspended over the back of two boats in its fleet.
The two pieces of fairing protect the rocket’s cargo in the nose of the rocket during the initial punch through the atmosphere. They split and break off at around 70 miles above the Earth and traditionally have been left to burn up in the atmosphere or break up when they hit the ocean.
But SpaceX has been working to try to save and reuse as much of each rocket as possible – something that comes with considerable cost savings and increased profits. The company has famously managed to land its booster rockets both on land and on ships in the middle of the ocean, and now does so routinely. But this week was the first time it managed to catch both sides of the fairing.
It has previously caught one side and then recovered the other from the ocean, reusing it after cleaning for another launch. But catching the giant pieces of metal – which are 13 metres (42.6 feet) tall, 5 metres (16.3 feet) wide and weigh around 1,000 kilograms (2,205 pounds) – has big benefits in terms of less risk of damage, savings in time and money and a greatly reduced risk of damage or injury during recovery.
SpaceX has also managed to capture people’s interest and imagination by releasing videos of its successful – and failed – landing attempts and this time was no different so we can watch both pieces of fairing land in the monster boat nets.
Videos of yesterday’s catch of both fairing halves pic.twitter.com/yzTDFzlulL— SpaceX (@SpaceX) July 21, 2020
So how is it done?
Well, while the first stage rockets use their main engines to carefully lower and position themselves onto specific touchdown spots, the fairing is not designed to fly and so a different system is used.
Cold nitrogen thrusters on each piece are used to stabilize it and create a predictable descent. Then location equipment using GPS is turned on and five miles above the ground a steerable parachute is deployed to both slow it down and help guide it.
Meanwhile on the ocean below the Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief (Mystery and Mischief) ships – each equipped with 3,700 m2 nets on extended arms, got into position and caught the falling fairings before they hit the ocean.
Just as with the first stage rockets, SpaceX has got better and closer with each launch, learning from the previous effort until this time it managed to catch both using two different ships. It’s an extremely satisfying feat of engineering.
But just as importantly, it comes with big cost savings, as each fairing costs around $6m to manufacture.
SpaceX has also got better at turning around its gentle-used, one-careful-owner materials. The flight this week used a Falcon 9 booster that it has previously recovered just 51 days earlier; its shortest ever turnaround. And that means the company can schedule more launches each year.
So what’s next?
SpaceX engineers are now trying to figure out how they can recover the second-stage booster as well as the first. That is a much trickier prospect because the second stage not only needs much more cladding than the first – making it much heavier – but also travels much faster, making it harder to slow and steer.
In an effort to reach the point where the second stage and so pretty much the entire rocket can be reused, engineers are experimenting with lighter heat shields and new surfaces. Oh, and it is considering adapting the boats that caught the fairing this week to catch the Dragon capsules that astronauts fly back down to Earth in – something that would make recovering the craft safer and save it from a dunking in the salty sea. ®