SpaceX Catches Falling Reusable Nose Cone Fairing With Giant Net (Video)

SpaceX first successfully captured a reusable fairing in June. The company currently only has one net-wielding boat capable of catching the rockets, …

Following a slight delay, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket had a successful launch on Tuesday evening from Florida, shown in a video by SpaceX founder Elon Musk on Twitter.

Although the first stage was unable to be recovered due to mission requirements, Elon Musk said at least one fairing was captured by a recovery ship.

Since the historic launch of the SES-10 communications satellite 24 months ago, SpaceX has been attempting to make reusing rocket nose cone fairings a standard practice.

Just under two and a half years ago, SpaceX first reused a part of its Falcon 9 rocket.

The company has since launched previously flown Falcon 9 first stages over 24 times.

Rocket fairing falls from space & is caught by Ms Tree boat pic.twitter.com/nJv0Ry1iKk

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 7, 2019

​The video of the launch shows a boat with a large net attached to it floating on a dimly lit ocean surface.

The fairing drops gracefully down to earth and lands comfortably in the net.

Following the breaking away of the fairing once it reaches space, thrusters and a guidance system guide the pieces back to Earth.

Parachutes are then deployed to slow the descent.

The boat carrying a gigantic net, known as Ms Tree, breaks the fairing’s fall.

The idea behind the catching process is that it is more cost beneficial to reuse nose cones rather than simply let them fall away.

Russian space officials have since shifted from previously dismissing the financial benefits of a reusable rocket case to developing their own unique design bureau specifically for building reusable launch vehicles.

European scientists also rejected reusable rockets but are now building their own Falcon 9-like rocket.

The next Japanese rocket, following its new H3 booster, is likely to be reusable and China is scrambling to develop its own model similar to SpaceX.

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Watch SpaceX catch its rocket fairing in a massive net

Tweeting early on Sunday night, SpaceX boss Elon Musk posted a video of SpaceX’s net-equipped ship M. Tree perfectly positioning itself below the …

After a number of delays due to hardware issues as well as bad weather, SpaceX finally managed to send the AMOS-17 communications satellite into Earth orbit last night. The mission went well, with the SpaceX Falcon 9 completing its third mission, but due to the nature of this particular launch, it wasn’t possible for the company to recover its rocket stage a third time.

However, that didn’t stop SpaceX from recovering another valuable piece of its high-tech hardware. The nosecone fairing is something that the company has been trying to catch and reuse for some time, and it finally snagged one for the first time back in late June. Now, SpaceX has done it again, and we have video of the catch to prove it.

Tweeting early on Sunday night, SpaceX boss Elon Musk posted a video of SpaceX’s net-equipped ship M. Tree perfectly positioning itself below the slowly-descending nosecone, allowing it to gently fall into its huge net:

Rocket fairing falls from space & is caught by Ms Tree boat pic.twitter.com/nJv0Ry1iKk

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 7, 2019

SpaceX has spent many months trying to perfect the art of catching its rocket fairings, and it’s had no shortage of problems along the way. The awkward shape of the nosecone halves makes it hard to predict their path, and many failures shaped the design of the chute system that the fairings are now equipped with.

SpaceX’s reusable rocket technology has proven itself already, with the company sending many of the first stages of its Falcon 9s into space multiple times. Doing so can dramatically shorten the turnaround time between launches while also allowing the company to offer its services at a lower cost.

Catching and reusing its nosecones isn’t as big of a deal, but it can still help the company’s business model and potentially lower costs even further, but only if SpaceX can make a habit of catching them without issue.

Image Source: Terry Renna/AP/REX/Shutterstock

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Rocket Lab working on a reusable booster

Unlike SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which reignites its engines to land steadily back on Earth, Rocket Lab’s Electron will deploy a series of parachutes to …

Small-satellite launch firm Rocket Lab plans to recover the core booster of its Electron rocket using a helicopter, a bold cost-saving concept that, if successful, would make it the second company after Elon Musk’s SpaceX to reuse an orbital-class rocket booster.

“Electron is going reusable,” Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck said during a presentation in Utah, showing an animation of the rocket sending a payload into a shallow orbit before speeding back through Earth’s atmosphere.

The Auckland-based company is one of a growing cadre of launch companies looking to slash the cost of sending shoebox-sized satellites to low Earth orbit, building smaller rockets and reinventing traditional production lines to meet a growing payload demand.

Electron, which has flown seven missions so far, can send up to 225 kg into space for roughly $7 million. Medium-class launchers such as Los Angeles-based Relativity Space can send up to 1,000 kg into space for $10 million while Texas-based firm Firefly can do it for $15 million.

Unlike SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which reignites its engines to land steadily back on Earth, Rocket Lab’s Electron will deploy a series of parachutes to slow its fall through the Earth’s atmosphere.

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OneWeb claims a win in its race for space-based internet with Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos

OneWeb said it has secured vital rights to the airwaves it needs to launch a global satellite broadband network. The startup backed by Softbank Corp.

OneWeb said it has secured vital rights to the airwaves it needs to launch a global satellite broadband network.

The start-up backed by Softbank Corp. is racing against billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos to install constellations of small satellites so they can offer 4G-like broadband to places that are too costly to reach using terrestrial networks.

By getting six of the washing machine-sized satellites broadcasting at the right frequencies for 90 days, OneWeb has met “use-it-or-lose-it” spectrum conditions set by the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union, the company said by email.

Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and Bezos’ Project Kuiper are likely to need the same spectrum. OneWeb says that being the first to file its claim and have it validated will mean signals from other operators must not interfere with its own, under rules that oblige latecomers to preserve the quality of services offered by an incumbent.

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“That could mean a longer road to the finish line for others than it is for us,” said Ruth Pritchard-Kelly, OneWeb’s vice president of regulation.

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Elon Musk and SpaceX have staked their legacy on a spaceship capable of carrying a hundred passengers to Mars.

U.K. communications watchdog Ofcom will now ask the ITU to register OneWeb’s priority claim on the bandwidth. An ITU spokeswoman said the Geneva-based body had not yet received frequency claims for the OneWeb or SpaceX projects.

OneWeb has raised $3.4 billion from shareholders including Softbank, Airbus, Richard Branson’s Virgin Corp. and Qualcomm Inc. and plans to launch about 30 of the satellites per month starting in December to create an initial constellation of 648. Because they are thousands of miles closer to Earth than traditional models, they promise much lower transmission delays than existing satellite broadband services.

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Musk’s SpaceX is also moving fast, sending dozens of satellites into orbit for its Starlink project and preparing for more launches this year after winning U.S. government approval for about 12,000 satellites. Project Kuiper has yet to launch any of its satellites.

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Here’s why Rocket Lab changed its mind on reusable launch

During the interview, we also discussed SpaceX’s recent announcement that it was entering the smallsat launch market with dedicated rideshare …
Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck speaks during the opening of the new Rocket Lab factory on October 12, 2018, in Auckland, New Zealand.
Enlarge/ Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck speaks during the opening of the new Rocket Lab factory on October 12, 2018, in Auckland, New Zealand.

On Tuesday, the US-based company Rocket Lab announced that it had begun to explore the possibility of reusing its smallsat launch vehicle, Electron. This represented a change of heart for the company, whose chief executive, Peter Beck, had previously dismissed the possibility of re-using the Electron booster.

To understand what led to this decision, Ars spoke with Beck at length on Wednesday. During the interview, we also discussed SpaceX’s recent announcement that it was entering the smallsat launch market with dedicated rideshare missions on its Falcon 9 rocket. Because the whole interview may be of interest to space aficionados, we’re sharing all of it.

Ars Technica: So, after all this time, how did you come to this decision to embrace rocket reusability?

Peter Beck: There’s nothing like actually flying and gathering data. The Electron vehicle is really heavily instrumented on every flight, with thousands of channels of data. We’re a conservative bunch, and we like to make sure we have lots of margins. We’ve been able to understand what sort of structural margins we have during ascent, and the performance of the vehicle. And in parallel to that, we’ve been ramping up at a hugely aggressive rate. We built a new factory, and we’re continuing to expand and hire at a crazy rate. We’re seeing the production delivery times get smaller, and a stage is rolling out of the factory every 30 days now. But really, we’re just nowhere close to keeping up with the demand from our customers. We need to ramp production even more aggressively.

At the end of last year I started to really look into the possibility of recovery, and the team looked at the data. We formed a recovery team and started hiring early this year, and they’ve been working on it ever since then. And every flight we’ve been instrumenting more and more and understanding more and more. In parallel with that, we’ve been building computational fluid dynamic models and structural analysis models and really validating those models with our data to understand what’s going on. As we understood the problem better and better, we got to the point where we were able to propose solutions that we felt were really quite feasible. At that point, we committed to the project and started upgrades. You’ll see on Flight 10 a few obvious changes on the first stage of Electron, and we felt this was a good opportunity to talk about it given that the jig will be up soon with people starting to notice stuff. We’d be busted pretty quick.

Rocket Lab’s plan for Electron reuse.

Explain how going for reuse is better than just trying to continue to scale production of the Electron rocket.

We’re trying to do both. Scaling production is not a trivial thing. We need to quadruple production over the next couple of years. You can take any product on this planet—a chair or a consumer product—and say I want a 4x production of that product. And that’s no trivial thing to do. When you have a supply chain as they have in the aerospace industry, which is really quite fragile, and you’re not just asking yourself to scale four times—you’re asking your suppliers to scale four times. Take the engine, for example: even if we wanted to double engine production and order a bunch more printers, those printers are six- or 12-month lead time. Really, we need to be all in. We’re crazy expanding our factories and hiring. But this is an additional step we need to take to increase launch opportunities.

Did the inspiration for this recovery method come from Armadillo, which tried something similar, or some other company?

The idea of mid-air capture has a long history, right back to the Corona missions in the 1950s and 1960s. That’s not new. And it’s funny, if you look at the helicopter capture, most people think that’s the hardest thing to do. But that’s really not hard at all. That’s the bit I’m least worried about being successful. It’s getting it through the atmosphere and down to a sensible speed that is really where the challenge lies. That’s where a lot of the innovation is going to come from in this program. We have some very unique aerodynamic decelerators that we’ll be employing to control the reentry but also to scrub the velocity.

When you say “aerodynamic decelerators,” does that look like a fin or what?

Yeah, I guess that’s kind of the magic of what we’re trying to do. That’s something that we’ve been a little bit less public on, some of the techniques we’re developing for that.

ELaNa19 mission liftoff of Electron rocket.
Enlarge/ ELaNa19 mission liftoff of Electron rocket.
Trevor Mahlmann

And when do you hope to start trying this out in practice? Is there a target for the first recovery?

Yeah, so the next flight on the pad here is an important one [Flight 8, due to launch later this month]. We have some critical flight instrumentation on that. Flight 10 is a block upgrade, with some visible changes to the booster. Really, after flight 10, there will be new things we’re trying on every flight. But look, this is a very, very difficult thing to do, and I’m reluctant to define a flight number that we’re going to do a full recovery on. It’s a very methodical and iterative approach we’re taking here.

How many times do you hope to reuse a booster?

If we could reuse it once we’ve effectively doubled production. Once would be wonderful. Anything more would be really fantastic.

Did you take inspiration from SpaceX’s success with reusing rockets over the last 2.5 years? Did that maybe push you over the line from, “It would be nice to do this,” to “Hey, we could actually do this”?

There’s no argument that SpaceX has reset the industry standard. What they’ve done has reset everybody’s expectations about what a 21st-century launch vehicle should look like. We always felt that recovery was not achievable on a small launch vehicle because, to do it propulsively, you end up actually building a large launch vehicle because you need so much propellant. Things don’t scale very well. That’s why we used to say publicly we didn’t see a path toward reusability. But we’re taking a very different approach here, one that was required to mesh what we have with a small launch vehicle.

Business must be pretty good if you need all these Electrons.

We’ve brought something to the market that was sorely needed, and we think we’ve hit the sweet spot for payloads. It’s enough that you can rideshare a few CubeSats, but it’s really spectacularly ideal for a dedicated smallsat launch. A 150kg or 200kg spacecraft—the Electron really suits it well. Launch has always been constrained, but we’re helping to ease the problem.

What do you think about the competition? SpaceX is entering the smallsat launch market. There are dozens of companies trying to build vehicles like Electron.

Ultimately, I think an increase in launch opportunities is good for everybody. It stimulates more opportunities, and it enables people to get on orbit more often. The limitation for SpaceX, obviously, is that they’re flying once a year to one particular orbit. Generally, the kind of customer that’s flying on Electron is not looking to rideshare—they’re looking for a dedicated service and all of the massive advantages that gives you. So, you know, from Rocket Lab’s perspective, we don’t see any challenge or impact to our business. It’s a very different customer that will fly on us versus a Falcon 9. But what I would say is there are quite a lot of launch vehicles in the 1,000kg payload range that are under development at the moment, and I think that’s going to be a real challenge for those guys. Basically their model is rideshare, and when you’re going head-to-head with an established player like SpaceX, you know, that has proven flight credibility and opportunities, that will be a real challenge.

How much does having a big head start, like you do, help in this kind of environment?

I lost count, personally, at 114 small-launch vehicle companies. I was told this morning that it was announced at this conference that there are now 130. I think actually flying and delivering payloads with high accuracy—it’s a long way away from someone who is looking to get to their first flight. What we found is that it took the same amount of time, capital, and energy to get to first flight that it did to get to flying once a month. I think flying is everything, and then flying regularly is even more. A customer just has to decide if they’re going to risk flying on a vehicle that has yet to be developed and proven and risk losing a time slot on a vehicle that is already operational.

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