Newly-released videos show SpaceX payload fairing coming back to Earth

New videos released Wednesday by SpaceX show the payload fairing from the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket plunging back into the atmosphere after launch June 25, trailing a wake of haunting blue super-heated plasma before unfurling a parafoil and landing in the net of an offshore recovery ship.

In one of the videos, tweeted by SpaceX, a video camera on-board one of the two payload fairing halves records the shroud’s jettison from the Falcon Heavy rocket around four minutes after liftoff at 2:30 a.m. EDT (0630 GMT) June 25 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The fairing is a composite aerodynamic shell that protects satellites during their ascent into space through the atmosphere. Once a rocket reaches space, it jettisons the fairing in clamshell-like fashion to fall back to Earth.

Other launch providers dispose of the fairing, but SpaceX has sought for several years to retrieve the components for refurbishment and reuse.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, told reporters last year that the fairing costs around $6 million.

SpaceX’s fairing recovery boat, recently renamed from “Mr. Steven” to “Ms. Tree,” is fitted with a giant net to catch the rocket’s fairing shell as it descends under a parafoil.

Since early 2018, SpaceX has tried using the fast-moving boat to steer underneath a fairing following launches from California. But the efforts chalked up a series of near-misses, prompting engineers to evaluate reusing fairings that fell into the sea, which require more refurbishment after exposure to salt water.

The fairing catch June 25 showed there is promise for SpaceX’s preferred method of recovery. Musk tweeted a video Wednesday showing the fairing landing in Ms. Tree’s net.

SpaceX has outfitted its fairings with avionics, thrusters and steerable parachutes to make a soft landing. The company wants to reuse the fairing, eyeing it as the next step in reducing launch costs after proving the landing and reuse of Falcon booster stages.

The ship caught one half of the fairing from the Falcon Heavy’s launch last week, but SpaceX eventually aims to retrieve both halves of the fairing on the same mission, officials said.

Read our earlier story for a full report on the June 25 launch, which carried two dozen spacecraft into orbit for the U.S. Air Force, NOAA, NASA, universities and international customers.

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.