An unsolicited idea to help improve the odds of catching the SpaceX rocket fairing

I absolutely love innovation … so when I read in the news today about how hard it is to catch the SpaceX rocket fairing with a net that is installed above a moving ship, and seeing that the failure to catch that nose-cone has happened before, I asked myself … what crazy (but theoretically feasible) solution could be explored in that scenario that no one has talked about yet.

TLDR: Here’s my unsolicited idea:  A custom-built drone that can nudge the fairing in the right direction. It might be a creative and economical solution for the problem.

Here’s the problem described by the news outlets: The parachute carrying SpaceX’s rocket fairing constantly misses the ship (aka Mr. Steven), which was designed to catch it with a big net.

From my perspective, given that it’s hard to dynamically and quickly re-position the ship, a possible solution is to try to re-position the approaching fairing itself, but how?

My first thought was something along the lines of that remote control ballon seen on Mission Impossible 4 (Ghost Protocol) but adding more heavy weight equipment to the fairing apparatus doesn’t seem practical at all … so scratch that.

My idea for a creative and economical solution: Use a custom drone that can be launched from Mr. Stevens (aka, the ship) and can gain enough altitude and momentum to help drive the parachute direction by nudging/pushing the cables. With enough altitude, any tiny nudge should be enough to make a difference in direction and positioning, and if the drone stay with the fairing until the very final landing alignment, it can continuously try to realign the parachute with the net, helping account for any unknown unknowns that are hard to feed into a prediction model.

Here’s the gist of my idea:

solutiondesign

  • Problem: Fairing constantly misses the ship built to catch it (Fig. A)
  • Hypothesis: The parachute can be precision guided with a custom-built drone (Fig. B) launched from the ship itself.
    • As the parachute approaches, the drone is launched from the ship (Fig. C) and zooms towards the parachute to give it a little nudge in the right direction (Fig. D), allowing it to be positioned right above the target landing area. (Fig. E)
    • The drone should, theoretically, be able to spin 360 degrees around the cable (Fig. F), helping control the nudge direction.

Logistically/Financially speaking:

  • The cost of a good commercial drone is about a few thousand dollars.
  • Although my illustration shows 4 rotors, as I’m writing this now I’m thinking that maybe 8 or even 12 might be needed to realistically address the instability caused by the winds and sudden changes in altitude.
  • A mega, custom-built drone might end up costing a few tens of thousands (maybe even approaching a 6 figure number).
  • The novel (Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning) software that would ensure the drone stay in spatial sync with the falling controlled object would also have a one-time development cost.
  • Given that it is said that each one of these payload fairings is attached to a cost of around $6M, maybe this is an interesting, cheap, and quick concept to be explored.

Disclaimer: I’m neither a rocket scientist nor a physicist and this is just an unsolicited idea that seems to work well on paper and was fully baked in less than 2 hours (including the writing of this post!),  so running a few simulations to ensure a successful outcome would be an interesting next step.  So, if anyone reading this ever happen to create a simulation to test this out or simply work out all the math, I’d be *VERY* curious to hear from you to satisfy my curiosity.   😀

If you like this type of creativity, you should check out my 2016 post with another crazy idea related to this subject.

Disclaimer II: I have absolutely ZERO affiliation whatsoever with SpaceX.

By André Lessa

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