SpaceX’s next major Falcon 9 fairing reuse milestone is now within reach after the company managed to successfully recover an entire reused nosecone with both halves intact.
On June 13th, a flight-proven Falcon 9 rocket lifted off on the seventh Starlink mission of 2020 and ninth launch overall, also marking SpaceX’s third reuse of a payload fairing since the first flight-proven nosecone flew in November 2019. As usual, Falcon 9’s upper stage commanded fairing deployment around three minutes after launch, leaving the house-sized shells to coast to an apogee of ~150 km (~93 mi) before falling back down to Earth. Once safely through reentry, both halves deployed GPS-guided parafoils and flew in the direction of two recovery ships, gliding for more than half an hour.
Unfortunately, although they likely got close, recovery ships GO Ms Tree and Ms Chief were unable to catch the parasailing fairings in their football field-size nets, leaving them to gently splash down in the Atlantic Ocean. Technicians were able to fish them out of the water with smaller onboard nets soon after and the ships sailed into port less than 36 hours later.
Preventing a vast majority of seawater exposure, a catch with Ms. Tree or Ms. Chief may always be preferable for fairing reuse but the fact remains that all three successful reuses up to this point have been achieved with fairing halves that landed in the ocean. That success means that SpaceX has found a way to fully prevent or mitigate any potential corrosion that might result from seawater immersion. Given that that problem must have been a showstopper for the ~2.5 years SpaceX was able to recover – but not reuse – intact fairings, it’s safe to say that the company’s engineers have more or less solved the problem of corrosion.
In fewer words, although there has yet to be any official confirmation that Falcon 9 fairings are capable of flying more than twice, there’s good reason to believe that the design upgrade that enabled one reuse had some built-in headroom. If that’s true, then one or both of the twice-flown fairing halves that safely returned to dry land on June 14th could fly for the third time just a few months from now – less than a year after the first reuse. For reference, it took SpaceX some ~33 months to go from the first reuse of a Falcon 9 first stage to the second reuse (third flight) of a single booster.
With as many as 13-17 more Starlink launches still on SpaceX’s 2020 manifest, there will be no shortage of opportunities for such a fairing reuse milestone – if possible – over the next six months. SpaceX’s next Starlink launch – the third launch in June alone and tenth mission overall – is scheduled no earlier than (NET) 6:20 pm EDT (22:20 UTC), June 22nd.