SpaceX is getting a bigger catcher’s mitt. CEO Elon Musk revealed on Tuesday that Mr. Stevens, the ship designed to retrieve the fairing from a Falcon 9 rocket after a launch, is getting an upgrade to make the area of its net four times larger.
The upgrade will help the ship use its four metal arms and giant net to catch the fairing as it falls to Earth, building on the idea of using a drone-ship to catch the first stage booster. All these improvements help SpaceX recover as much of the $62 million costs of building a rocket as much as possible. Catching the fairing and using it in a future mission would help SpaceX save a significant amount of money, as Musk previously told his staff: “Imagine we have a pallet of cash worth $6 million dollars falling through the sky. Would we try to catch it? I say we do.”
Unfortunately, Mr. Stevens does not have a great track record. The ship was first deployed in February 2018, using a modified fairing with a parachute to slow the descent and trusters to guide toward the ship as it careers toward the ground at eight times the speed of sound. The fairing missed its target by “a few hundred meters” after the launch from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California.
These advancements are helping SpaceX cut down the costs on space travel. The fuel only makes up around $200,000 of the overall rocket costs, meaning if the company can create machines that can withstand repeated use, it stands to save a large amount of money. This technology is being built into the BFR rocket set to undertaken an unmanned mission to Mars in 2022, with plans to refuel the ship on Mars before returning home.
Whether Musk can refit Mr. Stevens remains to be seen, but there’s plenty of opportunities to do so. The next California launch will be the Iridium Next mission in July, using a Falcon 9 to send up satellites numbered 56 through to 65 into orbit.
Once SpaceX has perfected the art of catching, it will then perfect the art of interplanetary exploration.