SpaceX’s mystery “Optimus Prime” drone ship robot spotted testing ahead of BulgariaSat-1 mission

Just a little over three months ago, in mid March, fans of SpaceX caught their first full glimpses of a mysterious robot aboard the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) while it was docked in Port Canaveral, Florida.

Rapidly deemed “Roomba” and later heard to be internally nicknamed “Optimus Prime”, it was approximately 50 feet (15 meters) across at its widest point and appeared to be extremely heavy due to the way it was handled on the side of the docks, as well as the presence of tracks rather than wheels. The SpaceX community quickly came to the conclusion that it was some sort of robotic tool for remotely securing Falcon 9 first stages following landings aboard SpaceX’s drone ship fleet, as first stages had a tendency to rather precariously slide about drone ships in high seas.

Optimus Prime roving around OCISLY on June 13th. (Brady Kenniston/
Optimus Prime captured by helicopter while conducting tests in March earlier this year. (Source: Reddit /u/riddlerthc)


This speculation was proven correct during a press conference following the successful launch of SES-10 and SpaceX’s first successful reuse; the Roomba/Optimus Prime was indeed a measure to more rapidly and safely secure first stages after landing aboard drone ships. The primary reason for this robot existing is to better ensure the safety of those working aboard active drone ships. Removing the requirement for people to be aboard a barge with an unsecured 50,000 kilogram rocket that has a tendency to explode violently after falling over.

The hallowed remains of the Falcon 9 that successfully launched Jason-3 but was somewhat less successfully recovered. (NASAspaceflight)

It is currently unclear whether the robot is intended to be a precaution only used in high seas or a tool to be used for every autonomous spaceport drone ship recovery. But the fact that it was seen conducting tests aboard OCISLY just a day before SpaceX’s static fire test for the upcoming launch of BulgariaSat-1 indicates that the upcoming launch may be the robot’s first truly operational test. It is also possible that SpaceX may simply choose to recover the stage and bring it back to port before conducting tests with the robot and an actual Falcon 9 S1 aboard OCISLY, with this latter option forcing less reliance upon a currently unproven (but nevertheless rather simple) technology.

Aside from the morally prescient goal of removing safety hazards for the Falcon 9 recovery crew, the ability to remotely secure Falcon 9 first stages will also avoid the time consuming practice of welding the landing legs and hydraulic jacks to the deck of the barge. This will likely remove hours of cautious procedures designed to protect those working aboard the barge once a stage has landed. As previously discussed on Teslarati, the possibility of weekly launches occurring from Cape Canaveral later this winter or sometime in 2018 gives SpaceX significant motivation to increase the availability of OCISLY, its only East coast-based drone ship.

A Falcon 9 S1 secured the old-fashioned way with leg shoes welded to the deck and hydraulic lifts to keep weight off the legs. (NASAspaceflight)

While the several days typically required to sail several hundred miles to the barges’ recovery destinations are not about to change, the ability to remotely secure recovered stages will both drastically improve the safety of the recovery crew and allow OCISLY to spend less time on station in the Atlantic, and thus more time back in port to offload its Falcon 9 payload and prepare for the next recovery.

For SpaceX’s goal of rapid reusability, every day and even every hour that can be removed from the process of launching, recovering, and relaunching is time that could theoretically be spent launching the payloads of paying customers, or launching SpaceX’s own payloads of revenue-producing broadband satellites and data-producing Red Dragons. As the saying goes, time is money.

Eric Ralph: Eric Ralph is Teslarati's senior spaceflight reporter and has been covering the industry in some capacity for almost half a decade, largely spurred in 2016 by a trip to Mexico to watch Elon Musk reveal SpaceX's plans for Mars in person. Aside from spreading interest and excitement about spaceflight far and wide, his primary goal is to cover humanity's ongoing efforts to expand beyond Earth to the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere.
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