SpaceX isn’t giving up on catching rocket fairings, boat spotted with new net

Mr. Steven was captured performing tests with a duo of fairings and nets at its Port of LA berth, January 22nd. (Pauline Acalin)

SpaceX fairing recovery vessel Mr. Steven was spotted in Port of San Pedro on January 22nd performing tests with two fairings in its net, hinting at the challenging logistics of safely recovering both Falcon 9 fairing halves with one ship.

Although SpaceX engineers and technicians have yet to catch a parasailing Falcon 9 fairing (let alone two) after an actual operational launch, a series of controlled fairing drop tests – using a barge and a helicopter – have brought Mr. Steven agonizingly close to success, evidenced by an official video published by SpaceX earlier this month.

Teslarati photographer Pauline Acalin managed to make it to Berth 240 in time to capture one section of SpaceX’s fairing recovery testing, in which Mr. Steven was loaded with two fairings, one on the large main net (the passive half) and one (the active half) atop a much smaller net slack on the vessel’s deck. By asymmetrically actuating each net’s separate electric motors, recovery technicians appear to be able to control fairing half orientation and shift their position in the net. It’s unclear how exactly Mr. Steven’s main (top) and secondary (bottom) nets are meant to interface insofar as it does not appear physically possible for a fairing half in the top net to make its way to the bottom net without the intervention of dockside cranes.

Perhaps more importantly, local photographer Jack Beyer was able to observe additional activities just prior to Pauline’s arrival, capturing what looked like a weighted parachute drop test onto either Mr. Steven’s net or the concrete docks beside the vessel.

The goal of that parachute/weight drop test is entirely opaque. Regardless, Tuesday’s tests do seem to indicate that SpaceX is thinking about recovering both post-launch Falcon fairing halves with a single Mr. Steven, a capability upgrade that would make the incomplete challenge of catching fairings even more difficult. Assuming both fairing halves deploy their parafoils at roughly the same time, it might be possible for the autonomous parafoils to modify trajectories in such a way that a gap of seconds or even minutes could be created between both planned splashdowns, offering Mr. Steven a minute or two to free its net of the first captured half before gently catching the second.

Despite the fact that SpaceX has not yet had operational success in the ~12 months recovery engineers and technicians have been working with Mr. Steven, tests like those performed on Tuesday have continued to reliably occur. If anything, the fact that experiments with dual-fairing recovery operations are still on the table is an encouraging indication that fairing recovery and reuse – particularly with Mr. Steven in the loop – are still a priority at SpaceX, while also suggesting that the company’s engineers and technicians are extremely confident that repeatable success is just a matter of refinement.

Mr. Steven is seen here just after a fairing half was placed on his main net. (Pauline Acalin, 01/22/19)

This should not come as a much of a surprise given that Falcon 9 began propulsive soft landing attempts in September 2013, 27 months before the company’s first successful Falcon 9 booster recovery. Nevertheless, SpaceX attempted its first actual landing aboard a drone ship in January 2015, separating the first attempt from the first successful landing by just less than 12 months. Fairing recovery is clearly an entirely different beast but the gist of this analogy remains true regardless – SpaceX’s brilliant engineers and technicians are unlikely to give up until a given problem is solved or their efforts are redirected elsewhere as company priorities shift.

Berth 240’s uncertain future

In the meantime, SpaceX may soon have to move Mr. Steven’s Port of San Pedro operations elsewhere according to a report from the LA Times that the company plans to “terminate [its] Terminal Island lease agreement.” SpaceX was unable to offer further insight beyond a statement provided about the future of BFR’s manufacturing, initially planned to occur at a dedicated factory that would have been built at Berth 240, which has also acted as Mr. Steven’s home for the last eight months.

Given the lack of official insight into the proceedings, it’s ambiguous if the terminated lease will be modified to allow for Mr. Steven to continue operating out of Berth 240. Prior to moving to Berth 240, SpaceX stationed Mr. Steven at Berth 52, home of drone ship Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) and support vessel NRC Quest. Space is already tight at that site, however, making it a suboptimal replacement for Berth 240.

SpaceX signed its Berth 240 lease near the end of March 2018 and would have reached the first anniversary of its prospective BFR factory around two months from now. For now, only SpaceX seems to know where Mr. Steven’s operations and the first BFR (Starship/Super Heavy) production will ultimately be located.

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SpaceX isn’t giving up on catching rocket fairings, boat spotted with new net
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