When rockets take off, they shed a few things that come crashing back to Earth. Elon Musk just figured out what to do about that.
Musk wants to catch the recyclable payload fairings from SpaceX rockets with a contraption that looks like some sort of freakish catcher’s mitt, which LiveScience spotted on Telsarati’s Twitter. A fairing is the nose cone at the top of a rocket that shields the payload, like Musk’s now-infamous roadster with dummy Starman at the wheel, from the intense pressure and heat of pre-flight ops and the actual launch. It’s also ridiculously expensive for something that only gets used once before it falls to its destruction. Think $6 million expensive.
Launching a Falcon 9 rocket costs about $63 million (don’t even ask about the Falcon Heavy), and any discount on that will be a relief to space agencies and commercial partners who want to send payloads beyond the atmosphere. SpaceX and the environment will appreciate not having to manufacture a new fairing for every launch. If it can be recycled, Musk will recycle it, if you know anything about his reusable boosters. This is where a SeaTran platform ship called Mr. Steven—that is actually its name—comes in with what could pass for a massive metal hand. Suspended between the “fingers” of this “hand” is a net that can recover incoming payload fairings.
Musk Instagrammed this photo of Mr. Steven setting out to play catch with the PAZ mission, which used a Falcon 9 rocket to launch imaging satellites for Spain next to SpaceX satellites that will test out its upcoming Starlink broadband service. Yes, you could have SpaceX internet by 2024.
SpaceX plans to recover as much of its two-piece rocket fairings as possible by making sure they are guided back to the home planet by geotagged parachutes. These parachutes will head for the Pacific Ocean, where the boat with its outsize catcher's mitt will follow them to catch the fairing in that hand-thing so it can eventually take to the air again.
The PAZ mission launched successfully, and as Musk tweeted, measures were taken to slow down the fairing’s descent to Earth after separating in the second stage. Its onboard thrusters and guidance system helped it survive the atmosphere in one piece, and the parafoil it deployed slowed it down as it plunged to Earth at eight times the speed of sound. SpaceX got close. They missed it by a few hundred meters this time, but Musk is already thinking of version 2.0:
At least it can eventually blast off on another rocket.