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SpaceX Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket’s drone ship return captured in stunning detail [gallery]

Teslarati photographer Pauline Acalin has captured SpaceX’s first West Coast Falcon 9 Block 5 booster recovery in the best detail yet seen of the rocket upgrade, well-worn after its first successful launch of Iridium NEXT-7, July 25.

Iridium-7 marked a number of important debuts for SpaceX: Falcon 9 Block 5 (Booster 1048, in this case) completed its first West Coast launch from SpaceX’s Vandenberg pad, drone ship Just Read The Instructions’ (JRTI) first rocket recovery attempt and success in nearly ten months, and recovery vessel Mr Steven’s first (albeit unsuccessful) attempt at catching a Falcon fairing with a dramatically enlarged net and arms.

Although inclement wind conditions foiled Mr Steven’s fairing catch effort and put pressure on Falcon 9 B1048’s journey to JRTI, Iridium-7 was flawlessly placed in orbit and Falcon 9 managed a slightly off-center but still thoroughly successful landing on the drone ship off the coast of California. With that launch and land debut on the West Coast and a second successful East Coast launch of a Block 5 rocket to the East just a few days prior, SpaceX has effectively demonstrated the basic functionality and reliability of the upgrade’s many far-reaching changes to the underlying Falcon 9 architecture.

Just Read The Instructions recovers a rocket

After nearly ten months largely spent berthed at SpaceX’s original Port of San Pedro dock space, drone ship JRTI has at long last returned to sea and successfully recovered a Falcon 9 booster, this time marking the West Coast launch and landing debut of the Block 5 rocket. Photos of the drone ship and rocket’s return to port were some of the best ever seen, thanks largely to the port’s layout and narrow mouth, which allowed Teslarati photographer Pauline Acalin to put giant telephoto lenses and a unique top-down perspective to good use.

Iridium NEXT-7 thankfully brought an end to the understandable but still-painful practice of intentionally expending twice-flown Falcon 9 boosters in the ocean after launch. Thanks to Iridium-7’s new Block 5 booster, B1048, expending the rocket was out of the question, as it likely will be for most Block 5 launches in the future. A combination of several expendable missions and an unfortunate duo of recovery anomalies (a small fire after Koreasat 5A and the Falcon Heavy center core landing failure) led to JRTI sitting on the sidelines since October 2017, as a considerable subset of its critical thruster hardware had to be stripped in order to keep East Coast sister ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) operational for a handful of attempts in 2018.

Many of the months JRTI spent at berth were thus without the pod thrusters the drone ship needs to keep itself at the proper landing point once at sea. Still, JRTI departed the port with a full complement of four blue thrusters on the evening of July 22 and had a highly successful return-to-action. Sadly, it’s unclear how much SpaceX will need the vessel within just a month or two from today – after the final Iridium launch (NEXT-8) in November or December, perhaps all of SpaceX’s future Vandenberg launches will be lofting lightweight payloads that should allow the company to rely almost entirely on its brand-new rocket landing zone – conveniently colocated barely 1000 feet from the pad – for CA rocket recoveries.

F9 Block 5 shows off its upgraded exterior

Falcon 9 Block 5 booster (B1048) arrived at Port of Los Angeles on July 27 after landing at sea aboard drone ship JRTI. Photos captured by Pauline arguably show the best details yet seen of the rocket upgrade, ranging from titanium grid fins to extraordinary shots of its sooty-but-still-sorta-shiny Merlin 1D engines.

 

Myriad others provide an amazing sense of place with SpaceX technicians conducting thorough post-landing checkouts, carefully documenting the booster’s condition, and generally wrenching on a massive, orbital-class rocket that completed a suborbital jaunt to space just days prior.

Of particular note are detailed views of the silky black “highly flame-resistant felt” now covering Falcon 9’s interstage (the top segment), landing legs, octaweb section, and raceways (the black lines traveling up and down the rocket). Compared to beat-up, older Falcon 9s, B1048’s shielded components look barely worse for wear, and it would genuinely be difficult to determine if the rocket had flown before without the telltale soot fingerprint present after every Falcon 9 recovery.

 

The only mystery that still remains is what exactly Falcon 9 Block 5’s octaweb heat-shielding looks like, reportedly one of the most critical and research-intensive upgrades necessary for true rapid reusability and reliability through many, many flights. Now built largely of titanium bolted to the octaweb, among a number of other extremely heat-tolerant metals and materials and even active water-cooling in spots, the new heat-shield was designed to carry the brunt of the reentry heating Falcon 9 experiences with ease.

Perhaps we’ll get a glimpse of that yet-unseen heat-shield over the next few weeks and months. Many, many more launches to come, so stay tuned!


For prompt updates, on-the-ground perspectives, and unique glimpses of SpaceX’s rocket recovery fleet (including fairing catcher Mr Steven) check out our brand new LaunchPad and LandingZone newsletters!

SpaceX Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket’s drone ship return captured in stunning detail [gallery]
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