SpaceX fairing recovery ships return to port with Falcon 9 nosecone and battle scars

On December 18th, SpaceX's twin fairing recovery ships returned to port after an eventful but unsuccessful catch attempt. (Richard Angle)

Four days after they headed out into the Atlantic Ocean, twin SpaceX fairing recovery ships Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief have returned to port with both halves of a Falcon 9 fairing, although they appear to have picked up some battle scars along the way.

Ms. Tree and its near-identical sibling Ms. Chief departed Port Canaveral on December 14th and arrived on station – 790 km (490 mi) off the coast of Florida – some 36 hours later. Each outfitted with a quartet of arms and pair of nets, it was the first time both ships successfully made it out into the Atlantic for a simultaneous fairing catch attempt, having been foiled by high seas during a prior November outing.

For unknown reasons, after the duo’s November false start, both ships stopped for almost two weeks at a South Carolina port, perhaps indicating that SpaceX was concerned about the structural integrity of the ships’ seemingly fragile net mechanism. In February 2019, Mr. Steven (now Ms. Tree) lost two of its four arms while heading downrange for an attempted catch, apparently broken off by pitching caused by high seas. Further strengthening the case that their net mechanisms are rather fragile, both Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief again suffered damage after their Kacific-1/JCSAT-18 Falcon 9 fairing recovery attempt.

Both ships arrived back at Port Canaveral on December 18th and were caught by Teslarati photographer Richard Angle while passing through the narrow mouth of the port. GO Ms. Chief took the lead, revealing a Falcon 9 fairing half snugly secured with a tarp on her deck – the ship’s very first launch vehicle hardware recovery.

GO Ms. Chief sails past the mouth of Port Canaveral, marking the end of its first true Falcon fairing recovery mission. (Richard Angle)

First (partially) successful fairing recovery quite literally under wraps, Ms. Chief nevertheless did not make it through the rite of passage unscathed. Oddly, it appears that just one of the ship’s eight white arm supports is missing (the rear right or aft starboard arm), visibly resulting in the arm slouching a bit compared to its siblings. Intriguingly, it appears that the arm is partially stretching – and thus potentially resting on – Ms. Chief’s net and rigging.

The fact that only one of the arm’s two beams (of eight total) seems to have failed is more immediately indicative of possible human error during installation or a defective attachment mechanism, although it’s entirely possible that a fluke of weather could have damaged just the one beam.

Both Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief suffered damage during their Kacific-1/JCSAT-18 fairing recovery mission, the latest sign that their nets and arms are surprisingly fragile. (Richard Angle)

Thankfully, Ms. Tree (formerly Mr. Steven) appears to have made it through the recovery mission with all four arms fully intact, although the ship clearly struggled with a separate mechanism. Notably, Ms. Tree seems to have struggled to use its secondary net to lift its fairing half out of the sea and onto her deck, with that smaller net clearly suffering a multitude of rips and tears at some point during the process. Her recovered fairing half is somewhat awkwardly strewn on the deck with no obvious attempt to rectify the issue, indicating that the net may have torn mid-lift, causing the fairing to fall maybe 5-10 feet.

If it did actually fall onto Ms. Tree’s deck, that will almost certainly be visible in the form of damage to its aluminum-composite honeycomb structure and white insulation coating.

Ultimately, fairing recovery continues to prove itself to be a major challenge, although SpaceX obviously has no intention of giving up. With two successful catches already in hand, it’s clear that fairing recovery is undeniably possible and is more a matter of tweaking existing systems than starting from scratch. Much like Falcon 9 booster recovery had and its fair share of failed landings even after the first success, it will likely take quite a while for SpaceX to optimize fairing recovery to the point that it can be considered reliable.

For now, routine fairing recovery and reuse will likely continue to be Falcon 9’s white whale, at worst adding to the excitement of every SpaceX satellite launch.

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Eric Ralph: I write about space, among other things.
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