SpaceX made a routine launch Friday, March 30, using one of its Falcon 9 rockets for Iridium. This is the fifth launch for the company, carrying 10 satellites in what will eventually be a constellation of 75 communications satellites called Iridium Next.
The launch went as planned and Falcon 9 carried the satellites into orbit. The live feed of the mission was cut off under instructions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the company kept live-tweeting the event.
There were several highlights in this mission, including SpaceX using the same Falcon they used to launch Iridium-3. The first stage was not recovered after launch in this mission. Also, this mission attempted to recapture the fairing, or one segment of the fairing, for reuse.
The fairing is the nose cone placed on top of the rocket, protecting the payload from stresses of the atmosphere as it ascends through the air, leaving Earth. Once the payload is ready for deployment, the fairings break away and fall back toward Earth, burning up in the atmosphere.
Fairing recapture is a new cost-cutting venture Elon Musk is attempting in his mission to reduce the cost of launch even further. CNN reports that fairings are expensive — up to $6 million for a Falcon 9 — so recapturing it could mean a great deal of savings for SpaceX.
However, unlike a Falcon 9 first stage that has a dedicated engine that lands it on a drone ship or a landing pad, the fairing does not have engines that can direct it toward a target.
Falcon 9 fairings have thrusters that can guide it using GPS back toward a target then use parafoils — a type of parachute that works in high altitudes — to slow it down and have it land on nets held open by a ship with a "giant mitt" called Mr Steven. Because it has no engines, it is not possible to perfectly fly to its target. It can, at best, steer itself.
The mission to capture the fairing failed this time. Musk tweeted saying the GPS-guided parafoil got twisted, so it just crashed into the water.
GPS guided parafoil twisted, so fairing impacted water at high speed. Air wake from fairing messing w parafoil steering. Doing helo drop tests in next few weeks to solve.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 30, 2018
SpaceX's February 22 launch debuted Mr Steven, but that fairing also missed the boat, although the parafoil made sure it had a soft landing in the water.