For the first time, SpaceX fleet-tracking sleuths have confirmed the identity and location – and captured photos – of the company’s third rocket recovery ‘drone ship.’
After several years of waiting for more details and multiple apparent delays, new information and photos allow us to finally determine what exactly that third drone ship – to be named A Shortfall Of Gravitas (ASOG) – will bring to the table when it enters SpaceX’s greater fleet.
While SpaceX could have feasibly gone in any number of directions, ranging from a clean-sheet build to something more akin to Blue Origin’s plans to convert a keeled cargo ship, it appears that the company ultimately settled on the simplest possible option – effectively replicating one of its two existing drone ships. Drone ships Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) and Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) are both converted barges based on virtually identical Marmac 303 and 304 vessels.
SpaceX’s barge conversion approach produces recovery ships with a massive, flat 300′ by 200′ (90 by 60 meter) surface perfect for supporting Falcon booster landings. SpaceX has also used the space available to add small garages to each ship for “Octagrabber” robots that allow recovery teams to remotely secure landed boosters – far safer than the hands-on alternative. Barges are also extremely affordable and simple to own, operate, and modify relative to crewed ships, making the conversion and certification process far easier.
Nevertheless, barges are flat-bottomed ships, meaning that they are more or less fully at the mercy of seas and weather, which can often force SpaceX to delay launches. At least as far as SpaceX’s current efforts go, its drone ships are must also be towed by tugboat to and from recovery zones and are only able to use their onboard propulsion for station-keeping once there. That means that SpaceX’s “drone ships” aren’t actually autonomous, per se, and are completely reliant upon several crewed support ships to do their jobs, translating to not-insignificant expenses for each at-sea booster recovery.
Given those challenges and the fact that A Shortfall Of Gravitas was originally expected to enter service some two years ago, it would have been far from surprising if SpaceX took that time to design and build a wholly new kind of rocket recovery ship meant to tackle those established issues. Instead, though, SpaceX appears to be adding an almost identical third ship to its fleet of converted barges, suggesting that the current fleet’s limitations weren’t worth the hassle to solve.
Simultaneously, signs suggest that SpaceX is on the cusp of reactivating its West Coast launch facilities for a dozen or more polar Starlink missions – missions that will very likely require drone ship booster landings for maximum efficiency. As such, it’s entirely possible that one of SpaceX’s three drone ships will immediately head for the Panama Canal as soon as ASOG is ready to enter the fleet. In other words, SpaceX’s East Coast fleet will likely continue to have two drone ships for the indefinite future.
In the meantime, it’s possible that drone ship ASOG could be ready to join its siblings just a few months from now. Stay tuned for updates!