SpaceX’s next Falcon 9 launch set to debut twin fairing recovery ships

Greg Scott captured the first-ever view of both SpaceX fairing recovery ships - Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief - departing Port Canaveral for sea trials on November 6th. After an aborted mission, the ships are now officially in place for their first simultaneous catch attempt. (Greg Scott)

SpaceX’s next Falcon 9 launch – a dedicated Starlink mission scheduled no earlier than November 11th – appears to be set to debut twin fairing recovery vessels GO Ms. Chief and GO Ms. Tree, a fairing recovery milestone that will be paired with at least two more rocket reusability firsts.

Captured below on October 31st and above on November 6th, SpaceX’s twin fairing recovery ships departed Port Canaveral yesterday for cooperative sea trials, the first time both Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief left the port together. Over the last three or so months, SpaceX recovery technicians and engineers outfitted GO Ms. Chief, a new addition to the fleet and essentially the twin of Ms. Tree (formerly Mr. Steven).

SpaceX’s growing rocket recovery fleet is pictured here on October 31st. Visible are fairing recovery ships Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief, Dragon recovery ships GO Searcher and GO Navigator, support vessel GO Quest, and drone ship Of Course I Still Love You. (Greg Scott)

By late-October, Ms. Chief’s new communications antennas, four large arms (each with two booms), a large net, and other miscellaneous hardware had been successfully installed, completing the ship’s transformation from a high-performance Fast Supply Vessel (FSV) into a Falcon fairing recovery asset. Aside from some slight tweaks and upgrades to her arms and rigging systems, Ms. Chief – as seen above – is now almost indistinguishable from Ms. Tree. This is no coincidence: Ms. Chief and Ms. Tree are essentially two parts of a single recovery mechanism, each meant to catch one of Falcon 9’s (or Falcon Heavy’s) payload fairing halves after launches.

As it turns out, SpaceX already has put the first Falcon 9 payload fairing reuse into motion – the November 11th Starlink-1 launch will reuse a fairing that gently landed in the Atlantic Ocean after Falcon Heavy Block 5’s April 2019 launch debut. Starlink satellites have been designed to be uniquely resistant to the violent acoustic environment of launch and able to tolerate a less-than-pristine environment inside the fairing, whereas most satellites demand cleanroom-equivalent conditions. Nevertheless, if SpaceX can routinely catch both Falcon fairing halves with both ships, it would likely enable far faster payload fairing reuse and potentially open the practice up to customer launches.

Local photographer and cookie distributor Julia Bergeron observed Wednesday’s sea trials and concluded that Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief were likely performing their first cooperative dynamic positioning tests, verifying the systems that both ships will use to guide themselves (and be guided by Falcon fairings) to successful catches.

Climbing the reusability ladder

Aside from marking the first attempted Falcon fairing reuse and potentially featuring the first attempted catch of both fairing halves, SpaceX’s Starlink-1 mission will also be the first time a Falcon 9 Block 5 booster will support its fourth orbital-class launch. SpaceX has now flown four Falcon 9 boosters three times (B1046-B1049) but has yet to pass the four-flight barrier.

SpaceX’s three surviving thrice-flown Block 5 boosters – B1048, B1049, and B1046 – are pictured here in various stages of recovery. (Teslarati, Pauline Acalin)

With internal Starlink launches, SpaceX no longer has to worry about convincing customers to accept the risk of being first for any given reusability milestone, and the company intends to use that freedom to continuously push Falcon 9 reusability as far and as quickly as it can. Starlink-1 – involving two separate flight-proven hardware ‘firsts’ and the first dual fairing recovery attempt – will kick off that new era of flexibility and is scheduled to launch no earlier than 9:55 am ET (14:55 UTC), November 11th.

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"Eric Ralph : @twitter.com/13ericralph31 I write about space, among other things.."
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