Watch SpaceX Falcon Heavy fairing make fiery re-entry to Earth's atmosphere (video)

Protective pieces of a SpaceX rocket made dramatic waves when they came back to Earth after a launch last weekend.

The two pieces of space hardware together made up the payload fairing that surrounded three satellites that launched atop a Falcon Heavy rocket on April 30.

The fairing halves were jettisoned after Falcon Heavy reached space, their satellite-protecting work done, and then came back to Earth at a very rapid clip.

"Fairing reentry on the ViaSat-3 mission was the hottest and fastest we've ever attempted," SpaceX officials wrote in a tweet Tuesday (May 2).

Related: SpaceX launches 3 satellites to orbit on 6th-ever Falcon Heavy mission

Following a SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch on April 30, 2023, the rocket's payload fairing made a dramatic reentry to Earth's atmosphere. (Image credit: SpaceX)

A short video that SpaceX posted in that tweet shows one of the two fairing halves falling at 15 times the speed of sound and creating a huge trail of electrically charged gas, or plasma, as it plows through Earth's atmosphere.

The primary payload on the April 30 mission was ViaSat-3 Americas, a 14,000-pound (6,400 kilograms) telecom satellite that will be operated by California-based company ViaSat. But ViaSat-3 went to space with two companions: Arcturus, a communications satellite from San Francisco-based Astranis Space Technologies, and GS-1, a cubesat from Washington-based Gravity Space.

The Falcon Heavy consists of three first stages of SpaceX's workhorse Falcon 9 rocket. The central booster is topped with an upper stage and the payloads, which are encased in a fairing. 

The three first stages are designed to be reusable, as is the fairing. The boosters on the April 30 launch were not recovered, because they expended all their fuel getting the heavy payload to distant geostationary orbit. But SpaceX apparently did aim to recover the fairings after the flight.

Falcon Heavy's first flight was in February 2018, a test that sent Elon Musk's red Tesla Roadster into orbit with a mannequin nicknamed Starman at the wheel. 

Falcon Heavy has now launched a total of six times, including twice this year. The other 2023 flight was a mission for the U.S. Space Force that launched in January, dubbed USSF-67.

Falcon Heavy used to be SpaceX's most powerful rocket, but it was eclipsed when the company's huge Starship vehicle lifted off for the first time on April 20. The test flight soared as high as 24 miles (39 km) until SpaceX deliberately destroyed the spacecraft during a tumble. SpaceX and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration are investigating the cause and lessons learned; environmental groups have sued the FAA in the wake of the launch, saying the agency didn't properly assess the damage the vehicle could cause to the area around the launch site.

Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of "Why Am I Taller?" (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon:

    Epic fail here.

    The SpaceX statement "Fairing reentry on the ViaSat-3 mission was the hottest and fastest we've ever attempted," suggests that a recovery was planned, as is often the case with these fairings,

    Kind of surprising considering all the ablating that appears to have taken place. And no mention of what exactly happened to that fairing. I can't be the only one that's wondering.