SpaceX nails another launch and landing, but can’t catch the nose cone

SpaceX successfully deployed another satellite into orbit on Monday, December 16, following a Falcon 9 launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. About eight minutes into the mission, the booster made a perfect landing on SpaceX’s drone ship.

But it wasn’t a perfect night for the commercial space company as two ships positioned in the Atlantic failed to catch the rocket’s fairing — or nose cone — when it returned to Earth.

SpaceX is developing a reliable and reusable rocket system with the aim of making space travel more economical. Monday’s mission marked the third outing for this particular booster following trips to the International Space Station in May and July 2019.

With SpaceX seemingly having perfected its Falcon 9 rocket launch and landings, the focus of this latest mission was on whether the team could successfully recover the two rocket fairing sections by catching them in large nets fixed onto two ships.

Up to now, SpaceX has been sending out a single ship to try to catch one half of the fairing as the company tries to hone the process, with the other half recovered from the sea as planned. A ship going by the name of Ms. Tree has managed to catch one half of the fairing on two separate occasions — in June and August 2019 — with the other half recovered from the water as expected.

This week, SpaceX sent out two ships — Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief — for the first time in a bid to catch both halves. But a tweet posted about 50 minutes after the rocket launch confirmed that both ships failed to make the catch, with both parts of the fairing landing in the sea.

It’s clearly a tricky procedure, but one SpaceX is keen to nail so it can save the $6-million fairing from saltwater damage and use it again with minimal maintenance.

In its complete state, the fairing is around 13 meters tall and 5 meters wide, and weighs about 1,000 kilograms. Each half contains cold nitrogen thrusters to ensure a stable descent. The system then deploys a GPS-equipped, steerable parafoil (a bit like a parachute) at around five miles above sea level to slow the section down enough for the ships to get into position. But it’s evident that the final moments of the operation are proving challenging for those involved. SpaceX will now examine the data gathered from this latest attempt to see how it can improve on the current method.

Monday’s mission deployed the Boeing-built JCSAT-18/Kacific1 satellite. The JCSAT-18 payload will provide coverage and improve mobile and broadband services for customers in the Asia-Pacific Islands region, while Kacific1 will connect previously unserved or underserved areas with “affordable, high-speed broadband for healthcare, education, government services, businesses, and disaster relief,” SpaceX said in a release.

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