SpaceX has been experimenting during recent launches with recovering the payload fairing at the top of its Falcon 9 rocket. The fairing is a $6 million shroud that protects the satellite during its turbulent ride through the atmosphere and into outer space. We haven’t really seen what this kind of recovery looks like as it happens—until now.
On Tuesday night, SpaceX founder Elon Musk shared a photo of one half of a payload fairing opening its parafoil after re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. In his Instagram post, Musk did not specify which mission this photo is from.
After experimenting with how to control the fairing during its return through the atmosphere in 2017, SpaceX had enough confidence to hire a boat named to try to catch the fairings as they fell into the Pacific Ocean. During the PAZ launch in February, the fairing narrowly missed the boat, but achieved a soft water landing. During a launch of Iridium satellites in March, the parafoil twisted, and the fairing again missed the boat.
As the is located on the west coast, SpaceX has only attempted such fairing recoveries during launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base, north of Los Angeles. The next of these is scheduled for no earlier than May 19, when SpaceX launches another batch of Iridium satellites.
SpaceX hopes to reuse its recaptured fairings, and thereby save money. However, construction of new payload fairings also takes up valuable real estate and workforce attention at SpaceX’s factory in Hawthorne, California. Several large rooms are given over to the task. Reusing fairings would allow the company to focus more on its next generation launch vehicle, the Big Falcon Rocket.
After it splits into two pieces to deploy a satellite into space, the payload fairing halves return through Earth’s atmosphere at a very high velocity, about eight times the speed of sound. SpaceX installed on-board thrusters and a guidance system to help steer the fairing through the atmosphere. Near the surface, a parafoil deploys to help arrest its descent, potentially allowing the fairing to be captured in a ship modified for this task