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SpaceX Barely Missed Catching a Rocket Nose Cone with Giant Net on a Boat

It was close but no cigar for Mr. Steven in its SpaceX debut.

The net-equipped boat came up a bit short in its quest to pluck a falling payload fairing — the protective nose cone that surrounds satellites during launch — out of the sky today (Feb. 22), SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said.

"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," Musk tweeted today.

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The billionaire entrepreneur also posted a photo on Instagram showing half of the clamshell-like fairing bobbing in the Pacific Ocean.

"Falcon fairing half as seen from our catcher’s mitt in boat form, Mr. Steven. No apparent damage from re-entry and splashdown," Musk wrote in his Instagram post.

A photo posted by on

Mr. Steven did its thing this morning, shortly after a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast. The booster successfully orbited the Paz radar-imaging satellite for Spanish company Hisdesat, along with two small prototype craft designed to pave the way for SpaceX's huge Starlink internet-satellite constellation.

The Falcon 9 featured a pre-flown first stage — part of SpaceX's cost-slashing effort to develop fully reusable launch systems. (The booster did not attempt a landing today, however.) Mr. Steven is part of this grand vision as well: Falcon 9 payload fairings cost about $6 million apiece, Musk has said, so there's a strong financial incentive to recover and reuse them.

The 205-foot-long (62 meters) Mr. Steven is a speedster, capable of reaching nearly 37 mph (59 km/h, or 32 knots), according to SeaTran, the company that owns the boat. Its deck is 136 feet long by 27 feet wide (41 by 8 meters).

A photo posted by on

SpaceX has another launch scheduled Sunday (Feb. 25), but Mr. Steven won't be involved. That mission, which will orbit the Hispasat 30W-6 communications satellite, lifts off from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, a continent away from the boat's current location.

Musk said on Twitter that Mr. Steven will next see action in "about a month."

Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall and Google+. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on Space.com.

SPACE.COM SENIOR SPACE WRITER — Michael has been writing for Space.com since 2010. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter. 

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