SpaceX "Catches" Rocket Nose Fairing At Sea

Nose fairing section in Ms. Tree's net illuminated by ship's spotlight, center left

Published Jul 2, 2019 9:50 PM by The Maritime Executive

Commercial space launch firm SpaceX has successfully completed the recovery of a rocket nose fairing at sea for the first time. 

SpaceX is attempting to lower the cost of launching satellites by reusing rocket components wherever possible. After launch, it lands its rocket booster stages at sites onshore and on DP-equipped flat deck barges ("drone ships") at sea. This is an industry first, and every reused booster rocket saves millions in manufacturing costs.  

SpaceX has attempted to recover its rockets' nose fairings as well. The fairing surrounds the payload at the tip of the rocket, and it is jettisoned after the upper stage leaves the atmosphere. Each two-piece fairing costs $6 million, about 10 percent of the list price of a Falcon 9 launch, so recovering even one half could generate significant savings. However, there is a technical problem: the fairings fall back to earth over the open ocean, and if they land in the water, SpaceX will not reuse them due to concerns over corrosion. (Satellite payloads are worth hundreds of millions of dollars - far more than the rocket, let alone one fairing.)

To solve this challenge, SpaceX chartered a crew boat and built a giant catchers' mitt on the back - a net supported by four long arms stretched over the side. As the fairing returns through the atmosphere, a small parachute slows its descent. The crewboat - recently renamed the Ms. Tree - transits at speed to rendezvous with it. If all goes well, the fairing lands in the net. 

Until last week, the system had difficulties with implementation. However, after a launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket on June 25, Ms. Tree caught one half of a fairing at a position in the mid-Atlantic - the first success for this novel sea-based cost-saving strategy.

Falcon Heavy uses three boosters - two Falcon 9 rockets on each side of a center core - and SpaceX attempts to recover and reuse all of them. Unfortunately, the center booster for this Falcon Heavy launch did not land successfully on SpaceX's drone ship, marking the second time that the specially-built center unit has failed to return as planned. SpaceX had noted beforehand that the launch would be by far the most difficult it had ever attempted, and that the center core would be subjected to more extreme conditions with less fuel reserves for landing. The satellite insertion mission was fully successful, but the booster burned and exploded as it returned to the drone ship. "High entry force & heat breached engine bay & center [engine] failed," SpaceX CEO Elon Musk explained. Both side boosters returned successfully to their landing pads.