Earlier today (Monday, Dec. 3rd), private aerospace giant SpaceX launched its Spaceflight SSO-A: SmallSat Express mission. The launch took place from Space Launch Complex 4E (SLC-4E) at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Aboard the rocket were 64 spacecraft, consisting of microsatellites, cubesates, technology demonstrators and educational research endeavors.
This mission was a milestones for a number of reasons. For Spaceflight Industries, which arranged for the cargo to be delivered to a Sun-Synchronous Low Earth Orbit (SSO), it was the largest single rideshare to be launched from US soil. For SpaceX, it was the third time that the rocket’s first stage booster had been launched and retrieved, bringing us ever closer to the day when Elon Musk’s vision of completely reusable rockets becomes a reality.
After multiple delays, SpaceX’s PAZ mission launched from from Space Launch Complex 4 East (SLC-4E) at Vandenburg Air Force Base on the morning of Thursday, February 22nd. Shortly after it reached orbit, the rocket deployed its payload (the PAZ Earth Observing satellite) as well as and two Starlink demonstrations satellites that will test SpaceX’s ability to provide broadband internet service from orbit.
In addition, this launch was the first time that SpaceX would be attempting to “catch” the payload fairings from a Falcon 9 rocket using a retrieval ship. As part of their plan to make their rockets fully reusable, the rocket’s fairings were equipped with deployable chutes that would control their descent to the Pacific Ocean. Once there, the newly-commissioned “Mr. Steven” retrieval ship would be waiting to catch them in its net.
As noted, the primary mission for this launch was the deployment of the the PAZ satellite to low-Earth orbit. This synthetic-aperture radar satellite was commisioned by Hisdesat, a Spanish commercial satellite company, for governmental and commercial use. Its purpose s to generate high-resolution images of the Earth’s surface, regardless of whether there are clouds covering the ground.
The secondary payload consisted of two experimental satellites – Microsat-2a and 2b – which are the first phase in SpaceX’s plan to deliver broadband internet service to the entire world. The plan calls for the deployment of more satellites in phases, reaching a total of 4,000 by 2024. However, it was the attempted retrieval of the rocket’s payload fairings that was of particular interest during the launch.
To be fair, this would not be the first time that SpaceX’s attempted to retrieve payload fairings. In March of 2017, SpaceX successfully recovered the fairings for one of their Falcon 9s, which allowed them to recoup an estimated $6 million dollars from that launch. At present, SpaceX indicates that the cost of an individual Falcon 9 launch is estimated to be around $62 million.
If the payload fairings could be recovered regularly, that means that the company could stand to recoup an additional 10% from every individual Falcon 9 launch. These additional savings would not only make the company more competitive, but could allow for additional mission profiles that are currently considered too expensive.
Missed by a few hundred meters, but fairing landed intact in water. Should be able catch it with slightly bigger chutes to slow down descent.
On Thursday Morning, SpaceX founder Elon Musk posted a picture of Mr. Steven taking to sea on Instagram with the following statement:
“Going to try to catch the giant fairing (nosecone) of Falcon 9 as it falls back from space at about eight times the speed of sound. It has onboard thrusters and a guidance system to bring it through the atmosphere intact, then releases a parafoil and our ship with basically a giant catcher’s mitt welded on tries to catch it.”
The launch, which was covered via webcast, went as planned. After taking off amid clear skies, the Falcon 9 reached orbit and deployed the PAZ satellite without incident, and the two Starlink satellites were deployed shortly thereafter. However, the webcast ended without providing any information about the status of the retrieval of the payload fairings.
At 7:14 am, Musk tweeted an update about the attempted retrieval, indicating that the fairings had landed in the ocean a few hundred meters from where Mr. Steven was waiting to catch them. While unsuccessful, Musk was optimistic about future attempts to retrieve payload fairings, saying:
“Missed by a few hundred meters, but fairing landed intact in water. Should be able catch it with slightly bigger chutes to slow down descent.”
As always, Musks seems undeterred by a setback and the company is moving ahead with its plans for expanded reusability. If successful, future attempts at retrieval are likely to involve the second stages of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. Given all the possibilities that this will allow for, there are many who want to see Musk’s latest venture to succeed.
In the meantime, check out this webcast of the launch:
When visionary entrepreneur Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, he did so with the intention of rekindling human space exploration and sending humans to Mars. Intrinsic to this vision was the reduction of costs associated with individual launches, which has so far been focused on the development of reusable first-stage rockets. However, the company recently announced that they are looking to make their rocket’s payload fairings reusable as well.
The payload fairing is basically the disposable shell at the top of the rocket that protects the cargo during launch. Once the rocket reaches orbit, the fairings falls away to release the payload to space and are lost. But if they could be retrieved, it would reduce launch cost by additional millions. Known as “Mr. Steven”, this new retrieval system consists of a platform ship, extended arms, and a net strung between them.
Mr. Steven is not unlike SpaceX’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ships (ASDS), which are used to retrieve first stage rocket boosters at sea. SpaceX has two operational drone ships, including Just Read the Instructions – which is stationed in the Pacific to retrieve launches from Vandenberg – and Of Course I Still Love You, which isstationed in the Atlantic to retrieve launches from Canaveral.
Recently, Teslarati’s Pauline Acalin captured some photographs of Mr. Steven while it was docked on the California coast near Vandenberg Air Force Base, where it preparing to head out to sea in support of the latest Falcon 9 launch. Known as the PAZ Mission, this launch will place a series of Spanish imaging satellites in orbit, as well as test satellites that will be part of SpaceX’s plan to provide broadband internet service.
Originally scheduled for Wednesday, February 21st, the launch was scrubbed due to strong upper level winds. It is currently scheduled to take place at 6:17 a.m. PST (14:17 UTC) on Thursday, February 22nd, from Space Launch Complex 4 East (SLC-4E) at the Vandenburg Air Force Base. After the cargo is deployed to orbit, the fairings will fall back slowly to Earth thanks to a set of geotagged parachutes.
These chutes will guide the fairings down to the Pacific Ocean, where Mr. Steven will sail to meet them. The fairings, if all goes as planned, will touch down gently into the net and be recovered for later use. In March of 2017, SpaceX successfully recovered a fairing for the first time, which allowed them to recoup an estimated $6 million dollars from that launch.
At present, SpaceX indicates that the cost of an individual Falcon 9 launch is an estimated $62 million. If the payload fairings can be recovered regularly, that means that the company stands to recoup an additional 10% of every individual Falcon 9 launch.
This news comes on the heels of SpaceX having successfully launched their Falcon Heavy rocket, which carried a Tesla Roadster with “Spaceman” into orbit. The launch was made all the more impressive due to the fact that two of the three rocket boosters used were successfully recovered. The core booster unfortunately crashed while attempted to land on one of the ASDS at sea.
At this rate, SpaceX may even start trying to recover their rocket’s second stages in the not-too-distant future. If indeed all components of a rocket are reusable, the only costs associated with individual launches will be the one-time manufacturing cost of the rocket, the cost of fuel, plus any additional maintenance post-launch.
For fans of space exploration and commercial aerospace, this is certainly exciting news! With every cost-cutting measure, the possibilities for scientific research and crewed missions increase exponentially. Imagine a future where it costs roughly the same to deploy space habitats to orbit as it does to deploy commercial satellites, and sending space-based solar arrays to orbit (and maybe even building a space elevator) is financially feasible!
It might sound a bit fantastic, but when the costs are no longer prohibitive, a lot of things become possible.