SpaceX just pulled off another rocket-reusability milestone — its first-ever payload fairing double catch.
The company managed to pluck out of the sky both halves of a Falcon 9 rocket's falling payload fairing shortly after the successful launch of a South Korean military satellite from Florida yesterday (July 20), SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said.
"Both fairing halves caught from space by @SpaceX ships!" Musk announced via Twitter yesterday evening. Then today, Musk unveiled video of the epic double play.
Both fairing halves caught from space by @SpaceX ships!July 20, 2020
Those ships are GO Ms. Tree and GO Ms. Chief, both of which have been outfitted with big nets to catch falling fairings, the protective nose cones that surround satellites during launch. (SpaceX fairings come back to Earth in two pieces, explaining the need for two ships.)
SpaceX has caught a handful of fairing halves on previous missions, but this is the first time the company has managed to keep both pieces from a single launch out of the drink.
Fairing catches are part of SpaceX's push to increase rocket reusability, an effort that's already in full swing. The company routinely lands and reflies the first stages of their two-stage Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. Indeed, yesterday's launch featured a Falcon 9 landing on a ship at sea, the 57th successful booster touchdown for SpaceX during an orbital launch.
It was the second landing for this particular booster, which also helped launch the Demo-2 test flight on May 30. Demo-2, SpaceX's first-ever crewed spaceflight, sent NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station aboard a Crew Dragon capsule.
Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy fairings — they're the same for both rockets — cost about $6 million apiece, Musk has said, so there's a strong incentive to reuse them. And reuse is tougher if fairings splash down, because seawater is highly corrosive. Hence the net-sporting boats.
The upper stages of the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy remain expendable at the moment. SpaceX's next-gen spaceflight system, however, will be entirely reusable. The 100-passenger Starship spacecraft and giant Super Heavy rocket, which could begin launching operational missions as soon as next year, are designed to fly many times apiece, Musk has said.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.