SpaceX’s latest rocket launch, which took place on Monday, July 20, saw the company achieve a first when two ships caught both sections of the Falcon 9 rocket’s fairing — or nose cone — after floating back down to Earth shortly after launch.
Up until Monday, SpaceX had been focusing on trying to catch only one of the sections while it worked on refining the procedure, with the other half plucked out of the sea. But efforts to nail the operation had been proving somewhat tricky, with the fairing more often than not missing the net and landing in the water along with the other half.
But on Monday, shortly after sending one of its Falcon 9 rockets skyward in the ANASIS-II mission to deploy a South Korean military satellite into orbit, two ships — named Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief — maneuvered into position in the Atlantic and managed to catch the fairing halves in giant nets. SpaceX has since posted videos (below) showing the achievement.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) July 21, 2020
The procedure is important for SpaceX as it takes it another step toward the completion of its project to build a reusable rocket system for more cost-effective space missions. It already safely returns the first-stage booster to Earth for reuse, as well as the capsule that sits atop the rocket. SpaceX engineers are now hoping to find a way to recover the second-stage booster, though it’s a more challenging procedure than the first-stage return because it needs to be brought down after achieving orbital velocity.
While it’s true that the fairing can still be used if it lands in the sea, a water landing exposes it to a greater risk of damage from the impact and saltwater. The nets offer a soft landing, allowing SpaceX to cut maintenance time before attaching the $6 million fairing to another booster for another mission.
As a complete piece, the Falcon 9 fairing, which holds the payload, is around 13 meters (42.6 feet) tall and 5 meters (16.3 feet) wide, and tips the scales at around 1,000 kilograms (2,205 pounds).
As the two sections return to Earth, cold nitrogen thrusters on each one fire up to enable a stable descent. The system then deploys a GPS-equipped, steerable parafoil (similar to a parachute) at an altitude of about five miles to slow the sections down enough for the ships to tweak their positions to give them the best possible chance of making a successful catch. Now all eyes are on whether SpaceX can perform the feat consistently.
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