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Watch SpaceX catch its nosecone fairing with ease

Published Aug 19th, 2020 5:55PM EDT
fairing recovery
Image: Elon Musk/Twitter

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  • SpaceX launched another 58 new Starlink satellites into Earth orbit last night, and it managed to catch one of its nosecone fairings as a bonus. 
  • The fairings cost as much as $6 million each, so it’s a wise business decision to attempt to recover them when possible.
  • SpaceX now has over 650 Starlink satellites in orbit.

SpaceX’s Starlink satellite horde got a little bit larger on Tuesday with the successful launch of another Falcon 9 and the deployment of 58 new satellites into Earth orbit. The launch and deployment went off without a hitch, and as an added bonus, SpaceX was able to recover part of its rocket’s nosecone, which has been a difficult thing for the company to pull off.

The two nosecone halves, called fairings, cover the payload bay and tumble back down to Earth after the spacecraft reaches space and deploys whatever it is carrying. In a first-of-its-kind video released by Elon Musk, the fairing catch was captured by a camera drone that provides us with some stunning footage.

As you can see in the video, the fairing was snatched as it slowly descended toward the ocean. The boat carrying that massive net is named Ms. Tree, and SpaceX has two such boats that it uses to try to catch both halves of the nosecone when they come down.

The video is pretty great, aside from some questionable background music, and it shows us the recovery process in a way that we’ve never seen it before. In fact, the video makes the whole thing look rather easy, which it most certainly is not.

SpaceX’s early efforts to recover its rocket fairings were met with poor results. The shape of the fairings makes it incredibly hard to predict how they’re going to come down. They’re not exactly aerodynamic, and SpaceX struggled for a long time, testing various chute configurations and nets until it settled on its current setup.

Even still, there’s no guarantee that the boats will catch the nosecones when they cruise back down to Earth, and in yesterday’s launch the other half of the nosecone ended up in the ocean before another SpaceX vessel recovered it. Over time, the company is getting better and better at positioning its boats and timing the catches, but it’s still far from a sure thing.

But why bother to catch the nosecones at all? SpaceX already regularly recovers and refurbishes its Falcon 9 booster, so why mess around with the nosecones, too? Well, despite looking like rather simple pieces of hardware, they’re actually incredibly complex and pricey. Elon Musk has claimed that the fairing halves cost somewhere around $6 million each, and recovering and refurbishing them is obviously a whole lot cheaper than making brand new ones.

In any case, the video is a treat, and it’s cool that SpaceX is so dedicated to showing off its accomplishments. That just means more cool stuff for the rest of us to watch.