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SpaceX’s latest rocket launch scored two big wins for the company

SpaceX has achieved a new record for the quickest turnaround time for the reuse of a rocket. Previously held by NASA with the Space Shuttle Atlantis that flew again after 54 days in 1985, the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster that launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on Monday, July 20, lifted off again after just 51 days.

The rocket was previously used for the first astronaut Crew Dragon flight that took Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station on May 30. Monday’s feat also broke SpaceX’s own turnaround record by a couple of weeks. The company hopes to eventually reduce the turnaround time from weeks to days as it seeks to make its launch services more efficient.

Monday’s mission also achieved another first as two net-equipped ships stationed in the Atlantic managed to catch both parts of the Falcon 9’s rocket fairing — or nose cone — as they floated back to Earth soon after launch. The fairing holds the rocket’s payload and is discarded as the payload is deployed.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk shared the news in a Twitter post:

Both fairing halves caught from space by @SpaceX ships!

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 20, 2020

For SpaceX, it’s the first time for two ships to successfully catch both parts of the fairing, enabling an important part of its quest to create a reusable rocket system for space exploration. It can already safely return the first-stage booster to Earth for reuse, as well as the capsule that sits atop the rocket. SpaceX engineers are now working on how to recover the second-stage booster, an altogether trickier challenge as it needs to be brought down after achieving orbital velocity a short while after the first stage is discarded.

Until now, SpaceX has been trying to catch only one half of the fairing as it tried to perfect the procedure, but the effort was hit and miss, with the section sometimes missing the ship’s vast net and ending up in the water. This time, however, two ships each caught a part of the fairing for the first time.

Catching the $6-million fairing spares it from suffering any saltwater damage and so allows it to be used again with minimal maintenance.

In its complete state, the fairing is around 13 meters (42.6 feet) tall and 5 meters (16.3 feet) wide, and weighs about 1,000 kilograms (2,205 pounds). Each of the two pieces contains cold nitrogen thrusters to ensure a stable descent on return to Earth.

The system then deploys a GPS-equipped, steerable parafoil (similar to a parachute) at an altitude of about five miles to slow the section down enough for the ships to finalize their positions.

Tuesday’s mission, which lifted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, deployed a military satellite for South Korea. The launch was supposed to take place last week but was delayed as the team investigated an issue with the second stage.

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