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Why does SpaceX’s droneship livestream cut out when its rocket lands?

SpaceX always likes to livestream its missions, from launch to landing and everything else besides.

The trouble is that during one of the most spectacular parts of some of its missions — when SpaceX’s reusable first-stage booster comes in to land on the Of Course I Still Love You droneship — the footage from the ship-based camera suddenly cuts out, preventing space fans from seeing the Falcon 9 rocket touch down.

It happened again on Sunday, May 16, at the end of a mission that saw SpaceX deploy 52 Starlink satellites into orbit, together with payloads from two commercial customers. As you can see in the video from Sunday’s landing, the rocket-based camera works fine but the feed from the droneship camera fizzles and is replaced with a message confirming the loss of signal.

Falcon 9’s first stage has landed on the Of Course I Still Love You droneship!

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) May 15, 2021

During its earlier landings, SpaceX only had a camera on the droneship, which meant a real-time view of the landing was missed entirely when the picture cut out. But these days it also streams footage from a rocket-based camera that tends to offer a more reliable feed.

The technical hiccups prompted some skeptics to cry foul, accusing SpaceX of faking the landings. The rocket-based camera has served to silence some of the doubters, though for more evidence of SpaceX’s ability to perform safe touchdowns you can also explore its numerous videos on YouTube.

But why does the droneship feed tend to cut out at the most important moment?

According to an excellent video posted a while ago by YouTuber Primal Space, it’s all to do with the power of the rocket’s thrusters destabilizing the directional signal between the camera and the satellite receiving the video data, which is beamed to SpaceX’s broadcast team.

Why does the SpaceX droneship camera cut out?

“As the rockets get closer to the droneship the thrust from the engines start to shake the droneship with such a high frequency that the video feed antenna [on the ship] loses lock with the satellite, causing the video feed to cut out,” Prime Space explains.

Possible solutions include putting the antenna on another vessel and locating it close to the droneship but far enough away to escape the effects of the Falcon 9’s disruptive descent.

Primal Space notes that even when the live feed cuts out, the landing is still recorded and often shared by SpaceX a day or two later.

For some spectacular and uninterrupted footage showing a Falcon 9 rocket making a touchdown on land, check out this video shot from a helicopter in 2020. You can also watch SpaceX’s next-generation Starship vehicle making its first successful landing earlier this month.

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Trevor Mogg
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