A SpaceX first-stage booster launched and landed for a record sixth time on Tuesday, August 18. It was also the 100th SpaceX launch since 2006 when its first Falcon 1 rocket soared skyward.
This week’s mission also saw a net-equipped ship catch one half of the Falcon 9 rocket’s fairing as it returned to Earth, a feat captured on video and tweeted by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket departed Cape Canaveral in Florida mid-morning local time, and a short while later deployed 58 internet-giving Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit, as well with three additional satellites for Earth-imaging company Planet Labs.
SpaceX has made huge strides with its rocket system over the last 14 years, pretty much perfecting the still-amazing launch and landing procedure that enables the team to reuse its first-stage booster.
Catching the two halves of the rocket fairing, which holds the rocket’s payload, has proved a trickier challenge, but this year it’s been having more success with the procedure.
Musk’s video (below) is the clearest view we’ve had of a successful catch. In fact, the video is so pin-sharp that some of his Twitter followers questioned whether it was actually real and not a computer-generated animation. Responding on Twitter, Musk promised the video was genuine.
In it, we can see the rocket fairing, slowed by a parachute, in the final moments before it lands on the giant net of a moving ship — called Ms. Tree — sailing off the coast of Florida.
There’s no word yet on whether the other ship — Ms. Chief — managed to catch the other half of the fairing.
At $6 million a pop, it certainly pays SpaceX to catch the fairing in this way if it wants to use it again. The alternative is to risk impact damage as it hits the sea, while the saltwater could also cause it harm.
In its entirety, the Falcon 9 fairing is around 13 meters (42.6 feet) tall and 5 meters (16.3 feet) wide, tipping the scales at around 1,000 kilograms (2,205 pounds).
As the two sections fall back to Earth, cold nitrogen thrusters provide a steady descent. The system then deploys a GPS-equipped, steerable parafoil (similar to a parachute) about five miles up to slow the sections down enough to give the ships a little more time to get into the right position. Tuesday’s success suggests the SpaceX team is making big improvements in getting the difficult procedure exactly right.
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