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SpaceX just launched, did it land the nose cone on a boat?

Posted at 12:29 PM, Mar 30, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-30 12:29:09-04

SpaceX launched another rocket on Friday, and this time it’s trying to land the $6 million nose cone into a giant seaborne net.

Liftoff occurred just after 7 am PT from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket delivered a group of 10 satellites into orbit for communications firm Iridium.

The company also attempted to safely recapture the rocket’s nose cone, also known as a payload fairing — but there’s no word yet about whether it was successful.

The fairing rests on the top of the rocket, and it acts as a shield for the satellites during launch. Once the rocket is in space, the fairing splits into two and falls away. Typically, it’s left to plummet back to Earth where the ocean becomes its graveyard.

But SpaceX wants to change that. As Musk once put it, if “you had $6 million in cash on a palette flying through the air, and it’s going to smash into the ocean, would you try to recover it? Yes. Yes, you would.”

The company has quietly tried to recapture the 43-foot-long fairing halves since at least March of 2017.

At least twice, SpaceX guided fairing halves to soft landings in the ocean. But there’s a problem.

“Once it gets into the water, it’s quite damaging to the electronics and components inside the fairing,” said Glenn Lightsey, a professor of aerospace engineering at Georgia Tech. “Most likely if it gets into the water, it’s not usable.”

Enter, Mr. Steven.

For Friday’s launch, a ship, named Mr. Steven, went out to sea and attempted to catch half of the fairing with a giant net.

On Thursday, marine tracking sites showed the ship headed out into the Pacific Ocean toward a location dubbed “Iridium 5,” which is the name of Friday’s mission. And on Friday morning, just before launch, it was positioned due west of Baja California.

Whether Mr. Steven does or doesn’t catch the fairing, the news will likely come from Musk himself — possibly on his social media accounts, where he’s shared other updates about SpaceX’s attempts to land fairings.

But landing the fairing will be difficult.

“It’s arguably as challenging or more challenging that landing the [first-stage rocket boosters],” Lightsey said.

SpaceX did not attempt to land the booster after Friday’s launch. The booster had flown once before on an October 2017 mission, and SpaceX will reportedly discard some of its older boosters as it gears up to debut an upgraded version of the Falcon 9, called Block 5.

SpaceX has already mastered the ludicrously complex maneuver of guiding a first-stage rocket booster back to Earth.

Thanks to SpaceX’s efforts to reuse hardware, its Falcon 9 rocket is drastically cheaper than competing rockets — and the customers keep lining up. The company is on pace to have its busiest year of launches ever.