SpaceX updates status of record-breaking Falcon 9 fairing recovery attempt

Twin fairing recovery ships Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief are pictured prior to their first simultaneous fairing recovery attempt. (SpaceX)

SpaceX has posted an update on its most ambitious Falcon fairing recovery attempt yet, confirming that the company’s twin recovery ships – both outfitted with giant arms and nets – still have some work to do before they will be able to simultaneously catch both halves of a Falcon 9 fairing.

Used to protect satellites from relatively hostile environmental conditions and shield payloads from aerodynamic buffeting and heating during launch, the latest Falcon 9 payload fairing lifted off atop twice-flown booster B1056 and a fresh upper stage at 7:10 pm ET, December 16th (00:10 UTC, Dec 17). After sending Falcon 9 S2 and the 6.8 metric ton (15,000 lb) Kacific-1/JCSAT-18 communications satellite on their way to orbit, B1056 nailed its third launch and landing aboard drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) a bit less than nine minutes after launch.

Falcon 9’s payload fairing halves separate about a minute later after the rocket left behind most of Earth’s atmosphere, traveling around 2.5 kilometers per second (5700 mph or Mach 7.5) at an altitude of more than 110 km (68 mi). Compared to the more brick-like Falcon 9 booster B1056, those fairing halves might as well be feathers, a fact that allows them to remain incredibly light while still surviving atmospheric reentry.

According to SpaceX, the journey from fairing separation to the surface of the Atlantic Ocean (or a recovery ship’s net) lasts some 40 minutes, impressive given that Falcon 9 almost never takes more than 10 minutes to go from a similar altitude to drone ship or landing zone. The reason is fairly simple: each Falcon fairing half deploys a parafoil shortly after it reenters Earth’s atmosphere, dramatically slowing their rate of descent and thus stretching out the time they spend flying.

Unfortunately, SpaceX says that twin recovery ships Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief “narrowly missed” Falcon 9’s fairing halves, confirming that they did deploy their parafoils but were unable to find their way to the ships’ nets. SpaceX will still reportedly recover them off the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, potentially enabling reuse on a future Starlink mission thanks to those satellites’ unique tolerance of less-than-cleanroom environments inside the fairing.

While unfortunate, SpaceX should have another opportunity to attempt the first full-fairing catch just a few weeks from now. Starlink-2, the third 60-satellite Starlink launch and second launch of upgraded Starlink v1.0 satellites, is scheduled to launch no earlier than December 30th, almost exactly two weeks from now. Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief have managed to dodge any inclement (and potentially damaging) weather this time around and should more than ready for a second recovery outing by then.

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SpaceX updates status of record-breaking Falcon 9 fairing recovery attempt
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