Featured Image Source: SpaceX
Yesterday, July 20, SpaceX conducted a mission for the Republic of South Korea which deployed ANASIS-II, a military satellite into a geostationary transfer orbit. The successful launch marked several rocket reusability milestones. ANASIS-II was propelled into orbit with the same historic Falcon 9 first-stage booster that launched NASA astronauts to the International Space Station aboard Crew Dragon’s debut mission. The rocket lifted off from Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral’s Air Force Station in Florida. About eight and a half minutes after liftoff, the booster landed on the Just Read The Instructions autonomous drone ship stationed in the Atlantic Ocean, about 640-kilometers downrange. Its landing marked the 57th time SpaceX recovered an orbital-class rocket. Now, SpaceX can reuse the historic booster a third time on a future mission. SpaceX is working on a rocket reusability system to reduce the cost of spaceflight. Launching a new Falcon 9 rocket costs approximately $62 million, recovering the first-stage booster saves them about 60% of the total cost of the rocket.
The company also accomplished recovering the rocket’s both fairing halves for the first time during the ANASIS-II mission. The fairing is the enclosed top nose cone section of the Falcon 9, that encloses the payload like a clamshell. As the rocket reaches orbit the fairing is opened and the halves fall towards Earth. Each of Falcon 9’s fairing halves are equipped with small steering thrusters and parachutes. About 45 minutes after liftoff, the fairing halves crossed Earth’s atmosphere to conduct a parachute-assisted landing on fairing catcher ships called ‘Ms. Chief’ and ‘Ms. Tree’. The ships are equipped with huge nets attached to four metal arms. To date, SpaceX has rescued a couple of fairings with the ships, but never both in a single mission; the fairings have landed in the ocean. Ocean water can be very corrosive due to its salty nature which may reduce the fairings’ strength. “Both fairing halves caught from space by SpaceX ships!” the founder of SpaceX Elon Musk announced via Twitter an hour after ANASIS-II satellite deployment.
Today, July 21, SpaceX shared the video of the fairings falling from the sky onto the ships’ nets, shown below. According to Musk, recovering fairings to reuse can save the company around $6 million per flight. Besides saving the company money, if SpaceX ships catching fairings becomes a successful routine on every launch, Musk previously said he sees potential in using the ships to catch the Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying astronauts as they conduct a parachute-assisted landing at sea. Currently, Dragon soft lands in the ocean and awaits recovery teams for pick up.
Recovering a Falcon 9’s first-stage and fairing can save the company a bit over $30 million; costs are significantly decreased. SpaceX aims to develop a rocket that could one day be fully reusable. Falcon 9 is capable of being 85% reusable, the rocket’s second-stage, which propels the payload in space, is expendable. SpaceX’s next-generation spacecraft, Starship, will be a fully reusable launch system developed based on lessons learned from Falcon 9’s reusability milestones.