SpaceX’s newest drone heads to sea for first Falcon 9 booster landing

(Richard Angle)

Update: Fresh from the drydock where it was built, SpaceX drone ship A Shortfall of Gravitas has departed Port Canaveral and is headed around 300 km (~190 mi) into the Atlantic Ocean for its first attempted Falcon 9 booster landing and recovery.

Designed to eventually be SpaceX’s first truly autonomous drone ship, it appears that ASOG’s first booster recovery mission(s) will nevertheless be performed like any other – with a tugboat to tow it to and from the landing zone and constant supervision from a team aboard a second support ship. Stay tuned to watch A Shortfall of Gravitas support its first Falcon booster landing as early as 3:37am EDT (07:37 UTC) on Saturday, August 28th.

SpaceX’s newest drone ship will reportedly support its first Falcon 9 booster recovery attempt ever as part of the company’s first launch in almost two months.

As previously discussed on Teslarati, SpaceX last launched on June 30th and is currently scheduled to return to flight (in a sense, at least) no earlier than August 28th, setting up an almost 60-day gap between launches – SpaceX’s longest in almost two years. Now, on top of a few significant milestones for the upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft meant to launch later this week, the mission will also mark an important step for the newest addition to SpaceX’s fleet of rocket recovery ships.

Known as A Shortfall of Gravitas (ASOG), that vessel is SpaceX’s third and newest “autonomous spaceport drone ship” and could potentially usher in a new era of rocket recovery for SpaceX according to CEO Elon Musk. Namely, Musk says that ASOG is designed to be the first truly autonomous drone ship. While existing ships Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) and Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) are technically autonomous in the sense that they are uncrewed during booster landings at sea, they must be towed to and from their recovery zones and are never far from a crewed support ship with a team of technicians.

Unlike OCISLY and JRTI, Musk says that drone ship ASOG will be truly autonomous in the sense that it’s been designed to propel itself to and from the recovery area without the need for a tugboat. According to Space Offshore, drone ship ASOG unsurprisingly won’t be operated (semi) autonomously on its very first recovery mission. It’s entirely possible that the regulatory side of things (in no way optimized for the operation of autonomous civilian ships) will have to catch up to SpaceX before ASOG is allowed to attempt a Falcon booster recovery with no human intervention.

Combined with the ship’s new ‘Octagrabber’ robot, the third of its kind, it’s not inconceivable that A Shortfall of Gravitas will one day be capable of sailing several hundred kilometers downrange, holding its position during landing, robotically safing and securing a landed booster, and sailing back to port with zero human intervention. Of course, given that things can always go wrong with systems as complex as Falcon boosters and drone ships, SpaceX will almost certainly have technicians tailing ASOG in a support ship for one or several dozen successful missions before ever attempting a fully autonomous recovery without a single human safeguard nearby.

Ultimately, though, that means that SpaceX’s upcoming CRS-23 Cargo Dragon mission could be the first in a long line of careful steps towards a truly autonomous rocket recovery system that might one day save the company millions of dollars per launch.

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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