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SpaceX attempts high speed boat recovery of the Falcon 9's nosecone

  • SpaceX began its launch Friday morning from the central coast of California, in an attempt to send Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit on a previously-flown Falcon 9 rocket.
  • Multiple delays pushed the Iridium-5 mission from its original date in December.
  • Elon Musk's space company may also attempt to catch the fairing – the bulbous nose cone on top of the rocket — using a high speed boat, as it did with the previous West Coast launch.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket used for the third Iridium NEXT launch, set to be flown again for the fifth Iridium launch.
SpaceX
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket used for the third Iridium NEXT launch, set to be flown again for the fifth Iridium launch.

SpaceX began its launch Friday morning from the central coast of California, in an attempt to send Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit on a previously-flown Falcon 9 rocket.

Elon Musk's rocket company live streamed part of the launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The mission is currently still in progress.

The space company will attempt to catch the fairing – the bulbous nose cone on top of the rocket — using a high speed boat known as "Mr. Steven." Musk tweeted after the Feb. 22 launch from Vandenberg that the boat missed catching the fairing "by a few hundreds meters," adding that the fairing slowed down enough to land "intact" in the Pacific Ocean.

Photos of Feb. 22 SpaceX Elon Musk's Instagram.

The boat has a net strung up behind it to capture the fairing and Musk said SpaceX "should be able catch it with slightly bigger chutes to slow down" its descent. SpaceX did not respond to a CNBC request for comment regarding whether Friday's launch attempt would see new fairing recovery technologies deployed.

Musk has noted that the fairing returns to Earth "at about eight times the speed of sound."

"It has onboard thrusters and a guidance system to bring it through the atmosphere intact, then releases a parafoil and our ship with basically a giant catcher's mitt welded on tries to catch it," Musk said, sharing a photo of the boat.


Originally scheduled to launch in December, the Iridium 5 mission had been pushed back multiple times to Thursday. With the launch two days away, Iridium CEO Matt Desch said in a tweet Tuesday the company was "having an issue" with one of the 10 satellites being prepared, pushing the attempt to Saturday.

Desch quickly followed up Tuesday evening, saying in a tweet "there has been a technical resolution" to the problem and the launch was now be set for Friday. He clarified in following tweets that it was not an issue with the Falcon 9 rocket or the Iridium satellites but rather "an obscure problem with communication harnesses used for testing on the ground."

"Kudos to combined teams for working round the clock to resolve," Desch said.

SpaceX announced before the launch it would "not attempt to recover" the Falcon 9's first stage, as it did with the Iridium-3 mission the booster previously flew. As SpaceX brings about a new variation of the Falcon 9 booster, known as "Block 5," older models are being discarded through expendable missions. SpaceX is using ocean landings to test more booster recovery options and there were reports before Iridium-5 of a SpaceX boat stationed in the Pacific Ocean, presumably to retrieve data after an ocean landing attempt.