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SpaceX successfully launches and lands its rocket, misses catching its nosecone

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Update December 16th, 8:05PM ET: SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 7:10PM ET this evening, and landed the booster on its drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean after takeoff. However, SpaceX’s two boats, Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief, didn’t catch the two fairing halves. The company says it will try to retrieve the fairing pieces from the water and use them on another launch.

Original story: Tonight, SpaceX is set to launch one of its last missions of the year from Florida. For this flight, the company will be trying to recover as many pieces of its rocket as possible post-takeoff. The Falcon 9 rocket flying today will attempt one of SpaceX’s signature landings after launch, targeting a drone ship floating in the Atlantic Ocean. After that, two of the company’s modified boats will try to catch the rocket’s nose cone with giant nets.

If all goes well, it’ll mark the first time that SpaceX has recovered so many parts of its vehicle following a launch, catching them all before they hit the ocean. While SpaceX has been fairly consistent with landing its rockets after each flight, the company has just started seeing some success with catching the rocket’s nose cone, also known as the payload fairing. But SpaceX has only had the capability to catch part of the fairing after each flight. That could change today.

The fairing is the bulbous structure that sits on top of the rocket to protect the satellite payload during the ascent to space. Once the vehicle has made it past the bulk of Earth’s atmosphere, the fairing breaks into two pieces and falls back to Earth. Typically, these pieces of the rocket go to waste — something that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was not happy about. “Imagine you had $6 million in cash in a pallet flying through the air, and it’s going to smash into the ocean,” Musk said once during a press conference. “Would you try to recover that? Yes. Yes, you would.”

In an effort to save these expensive pieces of hardware, SpaceX bought a boat and outfitted it with a giant net in order to catch one half of the fairing when it comes back to Earth. At the same time, SpaceX outfitted each fairing half with its own tiny thrusters and guidance system to help them navigate through our planet’s atmosphere. They also have their own parachutes to slow their fall. When timed just right, the netted boat can swoop underneath the descending fairing and catch it before it hits the ocean.

For a handful of recent launches, SpaceX has been able to catch one of the fairing halves after takeoff — not both. But that’s mostly because the company only had one boat with a giant net. Now, SpaceX has two vessels — named Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief — which will work in tandem to catch both fairings after today’s mission.

As for what’s going up on tonight’s flight, the Falcon 9 rocket is tasked with lofting a dual-use communications satellite called JCSAT-18/Kacific1 to geostationary orbit — a high path 22,000 miles above the Earth’s equator where satellites follow the rotation of the planet. The JCSAT-18 portion of the satellite is meant to provide communication coverage over the Asia-Pacific region for the Japanese SKY Perfect JSAT Corporation. The Kacific1 portion of the satellite will aim to provide communications coverage for areas in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands without much access to the internet.

The rocket flying today’s mission has already been to space twice before; it previously sent cargo to the space station once in May and then again in July. Today could mark its third landing following a trip to space. So far, the most SpaceX has reused a single vehicle has been four times, though the company claims the latest version of its Falcon 9 rocket can fly up to 10 times without the need for much refurbishment between launches.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is set to launch from the company’s pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The company has a launch window that lasts roughly an hour and a half, opening at 7:10PM ET and ending at 8:38PM ET. If, for some reason, the mission cannot get off the ground today, SpaceX can try again at the same time tomorrow, December 17th. So far, the weather seems pretty good for today, with a 90 percent chance that conditions will be favorable, according to the 45th Space Wing that oversees launches from the Cape.

SpaceX’s live coverage will begin about 15 minutes before takeoff, which could change leading up to the launch window. Check out SpaceX’s Twitter for any updates.

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