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When a rocket launches with some payload (like a satellite), it needs a fairing. The fairing, essentially the rocket's nose cone, is the covering on top of the payload that makes the spacecraft aerodynamic as it speeds through the Earth's atmosphere. But once the rocket gets past most of this air, it doesn't need the fairing—it becomes extra weight. So the fairing gets ejected and it falls back to Earth.
Now enter SpaceX, the rocket company founded by Elon Musk that likes to try new things. It turns out that these fairings aren't cheap. For the Falcon Heavy rocket, it appears they can cost about 6 million dollars. If you can rescue the fairings instead of just throwing them away, that can be some big money. And of course saving money means it will become cheaper to reach orbit (in the long run).
Plans - Fairings - Fairings - Pieces - Thrusters
So here's how SpaceX plans to save its fairings. Once the fairings are ejected (they come in two pieces), they use small thrusters to help guide them to a landing zone. When they reach a low enough altitude, the fairings use a large parachute to slow them down even more. Next comes the magic part. The parachuting fairing will be caught by a large (and fast) boat with a giant net on top of it. It seems like some crazy plan a 4th grade student would come up with—but it's real. Oh, it's real AND it worked. In the most recent Falcon Heavy launch, a fast ship named Ms. Tree (yes, that's the actual name of the boat) caught one of the fairings, the first time SpaceX managed to pull that off.
This is such a crazy event, it's a great inspiration for a physics problem. An exercise like this was probably the first step in the project to catch...
(Excerpt) Read more at: WIRED
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