After launching its powerful Falcon Heavy rocket this evening, SpaceX caught part of the vehicle’s nosecone when it fell back to Earth — the first time the company has ever pulled off such a feat. The structure broke away from the rocket in space and parachuted back to the surface, where it then landed on a SpaceX boat outfitted with a giant net.
The successful stunt comes after a year and a half of trying and failing to catch a nosecone after launch. But now that one has been recovered, it’s possible that SpaceX may use the structure again on an upcoming flight instead of building a new one from scratch.
The rocket’s nosecone, or fairing, is the bulbous structure that encases the payload during launch. It protects the onboard satellites during the initial climb and then breaks apart into halves when in space, which each fall back to Earth. Normally, the fairing goes unrecovered. However, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has been interested in figuring out a way to recover the fairing halves, in order to reuse them. “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. “Would you try to recover that? Yes. Yes, you would.”
The goal for SpaceX is to catch the fairing, gently, before it falls into the ocean and gets damaged by salt water. To do this, SpaceX came up with the wild idea of using a huge net. The company purchased a boat, adorably named Ms. Tree (originally named Mr. Steven), and outfitted the vessel with four giant beams that hoist a large net to catch the falling fairing. Each fairing half has a guidance system that allows it to navigate back to Earth, as well as small thrusters and special types of parachutes known as parafoils to control the nosecones’ descent. If all goes well, at least one fairing half will drop into the net a bit like a baseball dropping into a catcher’s mitt.
SpaceX has been trying out this technique during select flights since early last year, as well as performing numerous drop tests with the boat and a simulated fairing. SpaceX even made the net bigger on the Ms. Tree to make it easier for the boat to catch fairings. But up until now, none of SpaceX’s fairings have been able to stick the target, though the company has been able to recover many from the ocean. Now finally, all of that testing has paid off with today’s catch. And SpaceX says it also spotted the second half of the fairing nearby in the water.
Now, SpaceX will bring the fairing back to shore and determine if it can fly again. Since it didn’t touch the water, the hardware may be more easily refurbished than a fairing half that dropped into the ocean. And when it comes to launching rockets, using already made hardware is nice way to save on some costs.