SpaceX managed to catch a Falcon Heavy nose cone with a giant net

26 Jun 2019

SpaceX's Falcon Heavy in June 2019. Image: Official SpaceX Photos/Flickr (CC0 1.0)

SpaceX found a way to safely save the Falcon Heavy nose cone so that it could be used again in future launches.

On Monday (24 June), Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket was launched for the third time since its maiden flight in February 2018.

While the six-hour voyage was primarily a mission to transport 24 smaller spacecraft and other equipment inside the nose cone (including a number of small satellites, CubeSats, an atomic clock the size of a toaster, and other experiments that will improve weather forecasting and communication), this mission was particularly remarkable as it ended with SpaceX retrieving one half of the Falcon Heavy’s nose cone before it was destroyed.

The nose cone, or fairing, encases the payload (which in this case was the satellites, atomic clock and communication equipment) to protect the cargo during the rocket’s ascent to space. When the shuttle reaches space, this fairing breaks apart and falls back to Earth.

For some time now, SpaceX has been considering ways in which it could salvage the nose cone upon re-entry to the atmosphere, before it hits the ocean and is submerged in salt water. During a press conference in March 2017, CEO Elon Musk explained why the company felt that this was such an important thing to do: “Imagine you had $6m in cash in a pallet flying through the air, and it’s going to smash into the ocean. Would you try to recover that? Yes. Yes, you would.”

The aim was to save the nose cone so that it could be reused on future launches, saving SpaceX the valuable resources it would take to completely rebuild a new fairing from scratch.

Recycling major parts like this is something SpaceX has done before. On the Falcon Heavy’s first launch, SpaceX reused two recovered Falcon 9 cores as side boosters for the shuttle.

For the last 14 months, since the Falcon Heavy’s first launch, SpaceX has tried and failed to catch the nose as it descended back to Earth with a parachute. The company’s plan was to catch it using a boat with a large net attached to it. Here’s a clip of that boat, Mr Steven, narrowly missing the target in a recovery drop test back in January.

Since that retrieval attempt in January, SpaceX has renamed the boat as Ms Tree. On top of that, a much larger net has been added to the vessel. This change to the net size seems to have done the trick for the company, as SpaceX managed to catch one half of the nose cone in Ms Tree’s net, and found the other half in the nearby ocean. The company will now examine the half that did not come into contact with salt water in order to see if the hardware is intact or if it could potentially fly again.

Aside from this achievement, this was a fairly significant trip to space for Musk’s company because it resulted in the delivery of that toaster-sized atomic clock belonging to NASA. This clock has 50 times the stability of existing space clocks.

Up until now, atomic clocks have typically been the size of a refrigerator, but this one has been scaled down so that it can be easily accommodated on a spacecraft.

While the size of the unit is notable, the technology inside is even more extraordinary. NASA Space Communications and Navigation Program’s Don Cornwell explained to BBC: “For a spacecraft travelling well beyond Earth orbit, the smallest clock inaccuracies can lead to large navigational errors. But [the new clock] has a high degree of clock stability, meaning it can maintain its accuracy over many years. The deep space atomic clock’s design should gain or lose less than 2 nanoseconds per day, or an error of one second in 9m years.”

Kelly Earley was a journalist with Silicon Republic