SpaceX has been developing experimental techniques to recover payload fairings after launch since 2016. Payload fairings are designed to protect the launch vehicle payload from atmospheric pressure, acoustic effects, and aerodynamic heating during launch. Once free of Earth’s atmosphere these effects are no longer experienced so the fairing is jettisoned, splitting into 2 halves and falling back to Earth.
Each fairing half costs around $3 million dollars to manufacture and after jettisoning, it falls back to earth and is lost. Because of the manufacturing expense, SpaceX has experimented with ways to recover and re-use fairings to save money and bring down launch costs, just like they do with their Falcon 9 boosters.
The recovery method chosen by SpaceX was to equip fairings with thrusters and a steerable parafoil to control and slow the descent after jettison. A ship, equipped with a sizeable net, would then attempt to position itself underneath the falling fairing and catch it before it hits the ocean surface.
On early attempts, SpaceX did not commit to using a ship to try and catch the fairing. To test, adapt and improve the parafoil guidance system, different ships were sent downrange to monitor the success of the procedure and then, if possible, haul the fairings from the water and bring them back to land for analysis. SpaceX started doing this in 2016 using a ship by the name of GO Searcher.
Early recovery attempts by GO Searcher did not prove very successful. It took 4 missions for the ship to manage to return anything to land. During the 4th attempt (SES-10) the ship recovered 2 sizeable chunks of fairing debris but nothing more, suggesting a failure with the parafoil or rapid destruction once the fairing was floating on the ocean surface.
In October 2017, a new ship named GO Ms. Tree (named Mr. Steven at the time) arrived at Port Canaveral, Florida. Ms. Tree was the ship that would ultimately be fitted with a net and attempt to catch the payload fairings. Before any modifications started, the ship was sent out during the KoreaSat-5A mission to perform GO Searcher’s role of observing the fairing’s descent and then recover it from the water. The ship returned to Port Canaveral with a largely intact fairing half – the first major success of the program. Shortly after this, SpaceX moved Ms. Tree to the California to develop the catching system closer to their Hawthorne headquarters.
Fairing Recovery Missions
SpaceX has been sending ships downrange since 2016 to attempt recovery of payload fairings, with varying success. We’ve collated a list of all these attempts and their outcomes.
With Ms. Tree now on the West Coast, and with GO Searcher now re-assigned to Crew Dragon recovery, a 3rd ship was needed to continue recovery operations on the east coast. GO Pursuit was brought in to perform the same role as GO Searcher once did. Throughout the first half of 2018, GO Pursuit was sent out four times, managing to recover two fairing halves.
Ms. Tree was first fitted with arms and a net in December 2017 in the Port of Los Angeles. Ms. Tree’s first attempt at catching a fairing half was during the PAZ mission in February 2018 but was unsuccessful. After little success, the vessel’s net and arm structure was significantly upgraded to be four times larger, totaling an estimated 3.600 square meters. Ms. Tree continued to make attempts at catching fairings throughout 2018 with no success. The ship was, however, frequently able to recover them from the water shortly after. For the full story of Ms. Tree’s mission history take a look at the dedicated page here.
GO Ms. Tree
GO Ms. Tree is a fast, highly maneuverable vessel that was chartered by SpaceX in 2017 to support their fairing recovery program. The ship has been heavily modified by SpaceX so that it now has a large net structure designed to catch fairing halves as they descend.
In response to the catching attempt failure during the Iridium-5 mission, Elon Musk announced that helicopter drop-tests would be conducted to help improve the parafoil system and as practice for Ms. Tree’s crew. The announcement was made in March 2018. Ms. Tree conducted numerous tests between June and December 2018.
For the tests, a fairing half was placed onto a barge and towed out to sea. A helicopter would then pick up the fairing and ascend with it up to ~3.25km in altitude before dropping it. Ms. Tree, waiting below, would then follow the fairing and attempt to catch it as it descended downwards. Ms. Tree was reportedly not successful during any of the tests but came very close. SpaceX released two videos of the process on Twitter.
GO Ms. Tree successfully caught a fairing half for the first time during the STP-2 mission on June 25th, 2019. The fairing recovery zone for the mission was at a record distance of 1,350 km downrange. The weather was excellent and the ship was successful in catching a fairing half for the first time. The fairing half was lowered from the net and delivered back to Port Canaveral for processing and potential re-use in the future.
Ms. Tree was again successful during the AMOS-17 mission on August 7th, 2019. The program has seen further success with the program since then but not consistently. SpaceX chartered a second fairing catcher vessel, GO Ms. Chief in August 2019 to allow SpaceX to catch both fairing halves during a single mission.
GO Ms. Chief
GO Ms. Chief is the second fairing catcher. This vessel is near-identical to Ms. Tree and joined the recovery fleet in August 2019 to allow SpaceX to catch both fairing halves during a single mission.
Photo: Kyle Montgomery
Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief are crewed at all times. During a catch attempt, the movements of the ship are directly controlled by a computer system; however, the crew can manually intervene if required. SpaceX has slowly refined the computer system to improve the reliability of the catching operation. The descending fairing half and the ship computer talk to each and autonomously steer themselves towards each other.
Recovery teams conduct a poll shortly before each catch attempt. During the poll, they look at the current weather and telemetry from the fairing to decide whether or not to proceed with a catch attempt as these are major factors that influence the outcome of the operation.