Last night, SpaceX successfully caught half of the nose cone of its Falcon 9 rocket for a second time, and we finally got some footage of the (very slow) save at sea. The video of the catch, shared by CEO Elon Musk, shows the nose cone, or payload fairing, leisurely falling into a net attached to one of SpaceX’s boats named Ms. Tree. Yes, you read that sentence correctly.
SpaceX has been on a quest to catch its fairings for the last year and a half. These bulbous structures surround whatever payload or satellite the Falcon 9 rocket is carrying, acting as a shield during each launch. Typically, they break in half in space and just fall back to Earth, never to be recovered. But Musk has never been content to simply throw things away, especially when they cost a lot of money.
“Imagine you had $6 million in cash in a palette flying through the air, and it’s going to smash into the ocean,” Musk said during a press conference last year, referring to the cost of the fairing. “Would you try to recover that? Yes. Yes, you would.”
Rocket fairing falling from space (higher res) pic.twitter.com/sa1j10qAWi— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 7, 2019
So SpaceX came up with a bizarre process to catch these structures in order to use them again on subsequent flights. After the fairing halves break away in space, they use a series of small thrusters and a guidance system to control their falls back to Earth. Then at some point, they deploy parachutes to slow their fall. As they descend to the surface of the ocean, SpaceX’s Ms. Tree — formerly called Mr. Steven (I’m not kidding) — swoops in with its giant net to break the fairing’s fall.
After numerous close calls, the first successful fairing catch occurred in June, after SpaceX’s third Falcon Heavy launch. Now, the company seems poised to start regularly catching fairings with the same frequency at which it lands its rockets. Currently, SpaceX only has one giant net-wielding boat, so it can only catch one fairing half at a time. But perhaps Ms. Tree will soon have a companion to aid with catching duties.