Watch SpaceX Catch a Falcon 9 Part on the Dark Seas in AMOS-17 Mission

The giant catcher's mitt gets to work.

A few minutes after 8 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday, SpaceX’s ship waited in the water. The glowing lamps of the ship Ms. Tree lit up the Atlantic Ocean waters in lieu of the sun, as it waited for a component of SpaceX’s rocket to return to Earth.

Gradually, the fairing floated down toward the ship. As it touched down on the net, it marked another step in SpaceX’s journey to make rockets as reusable as possible.

“Strangers in the night,” Musk posted on Twitter in response to the feat, referencing the Frank Sinatra song.

The fairing, used to protect the rocket’s payload, only represents around $6 million of the $62 million costs associated with launching a Falcon 9 rocket. But while SpaceX has gradually perfected its technology to recover the $45.5 million booster, the fairing had remained elusive until recently.

As SpaceX gears up to send humans to Mars, before establishing them as a planet-hopping species, its rocket-reusing technology will form an integral part of the process.

AMOS-17 lifting off.
AMOS-17 lifting off.

SpaceX Fairing: How the AMOS-17 Mission Paves the Way for Bigger Challenges

SpaceX’s 10th mission of 2019 experienced a slight delay. The AMOS-17 mission used a Falcon 9 rocket, which underwent a preparatory static test fire on August 1. That firing revealed a “suspect valve” that the team replaced, leading to a second static test firing on August 4.

The rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on August 6 at 7:23 p.m. Eastern time. As a testament to SpaceX’s booster recovery abilities, this Falcon 9 booster had flown on two previous missions. The first was for the July 2018 Telstar-19 mission, and the second the Es’hail-2 mission in November 2018. SpaceX did not try to recover the booster for this third mission.

At the 31-minute mark after liftoff, SpaceX deployed the satellite. The Spacecom satellite uses Boeing technology to increase connectivity in Africa, orbiting over central Africa to provide service for at least 20 years. The launch comes three years after a previous mission between SpaceX and Spacecom, AMOS-6, exploded on the launchpad. That incident “deeply disappointed” Mark Zuckerberg, whose company Facebook planned to use the satellite as part of its plans to beam satellite internet to Africa. Spacecom used credit from the failed AMOS-6 mission to cover the cost of this week’s AMOS-17 mission.

After the deployment, SpaceX faced its next major challenge: catching the fairing.

The company had only ever caught a fairing half in a mission once before, last month during the Space Test Program-2 mission. Ms. Tree, originally dubbed Mr. Steven, had been deployed with four giant metal arms holding the net. As bright blue particles heated up during its descent, the fairing struck an impressive blue hue in captured footage.

The ship is classed as a fast supply vessel, meaning it’s capable at moving 400 metric tons of cargo at speeds of up to 27 mph. Its predecessor never managed to catch a fairing, however, leading the company to add a net four times larger than its predecessor to reach 0.9 acres.

The upgrades seem to have worked. Less than one month after Ms. Tree caught the STP-2 fairing, the ship successfully stepped up to the challenge and caught the AMOS-17 component.

Over the years, SpaceX has quickly moved to recover more and more of the Falcon 9 rocket. In 2013 it tried to recover its first booster, but failed. In 2017 it tried to and successfully recovered 15 boosters, a 100 percent success rate. With another fairing recovery under its belt, the age of the fully-reusable rocket is almost here.

“Often I’ll be told, ‘But you can get more payload if you made it expendable’,” Musk told the audience at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, in September 2017. “I say, ‘Yes, you could also get more payload from an aircraft if you got rid of the landing gear and the flaps and just parachuted out when you got to your destination, but that would be crazy and you would sell zero aircraft.’”

Not too far from the AMOS-17 launch, SpaceX is working on the next project that could put its reusable rocket technologies to good use. The Starship, a stainless steel rocket under construction in Florida and Texas, is designed to carry the first humans to Mars on a manned mission. It uses liquid oxygen and methane as its fuel, enabling humans to set up a propellant depot and create the fuel to return home.

As Ms. Tree floated on the water out at sea, it sat under a night sky that could one day host the ship that takes humanity further than it’s ever travelled.

Media via SpaceX, Elon Musk/Twitter