A mysterious and massive piece of equipment was spotted by Redditor vshie early this morning aboard one of SpaceX’s fleet of leased ocean recovery vessels.
Captured aboard the recovery vessel Mr. Steven, the massive claw-like appendages are almost certainly linked to SpaceX’s payload fairing recovery efforts that have been ongoing throughout 2017. Despite SpaceX’s highly successful first stage recovery program, as much as 30% or more of the cost of every Falcon 9 launch can be found in the second stage and its many components that are discarded after every mission. Being able to recover the payload fairing, a major component of the Falcon 9 that costs approximately $5 million on its own or roughly 10% of the cost of a $62 million expendable launch, would lead to further cost reductions in commercial spaceflight.
Fairing is ~$5M, but that should be reusable this year. Am fairly confident we can reuse upper stage too by late next year to get to 100%.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 7, 2017
While CEO Elon Musk has previously hinted at a sort of inflatable cushion (“bouncy castle” in his words) as the solution for keeping the fairings out of the ocean after landing, the mechanism spotted aboard would appear to be a small departure, likely instead making use of a net to catch the fairing.
Mr. Steven is located on the West Coast and is almost certainly preparing for the imminent launch of the fourth group of Iridium-NEXT satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base, presently scheduled for liftoff at 5:27pm, December 22. Of note, Iridium-4 will fly atop a flight-proven Falcon 9 booster, last active during the launch of Iridium-2 in June 2017, an elegant symmetry for the satellite communications company.
Given that only one such modified vessel has been spotted at this point, it can be assumed that this recovery effort is an experimental test meant to only attempt the capture of one half of the payload fairing. There is also a remote possibility that SpaceX intends to stagger the recovery of each half such that technicians aboard Mr. Steven are able to quickly move the first fairing out of the way before snagging the second. SpaceX certainly is known to move quickly with hardware development and testing, but the recovery of two fairings on the same vessel seems more likely to be a future improvement that will follow mastery of a single recovery at a time.
Mr. Steven’s fairing grabber adds to SpaceX’s collection of intriguing, unorthodox robotic and mechanical solutions to brand new problems on the cutting edge of reusable rocketry, following in the footsteps of Of Course I Still Love You‘s robotic stage securer, Roomba/Octagrabber. Undoubtedly, the fan mills are already churning out potential nicknames for the newfound fairing grabber as we speak, and it will be thrilling to see or at least hear official confirmation of it in action, hopefully following the successful recovery of half of the Iridium-4 mission’s payload fairing this Friday.