Protective pieces of a SpaceX rocket made dramatic waves when they came back to Earth after a launch last weekend.
The two pieces of space hardware together made up the payload fairing that surrounded three satellites that launched atop a Falcon Heavy rocket on April 30.
The fairing halves were jettisoned after Falcon Heavy reached space, their satellite-protecting work done, and then came back to Earth at a very rapid clip.
“Fairing reentry on the ViaSat-3 mission was the hottest and fastest we’ve ever attempted,” SpaceX officials wrote in a tweet (opens in new tab) Tuesday (May 2).
Related: SpaceX launches 3 satellites to orbit on 6th-ever Falcon Heavy mission
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A short video that SpaceX posted in that tweet shows one of the two fairing halves falling at 15 times the speed of sound and creating a huge trail of electrically charged gas, or plasma, as it plows through Earth’s atmosphere.
The primary payload on the April 30 mission was ViaSat-3 Americas, a 14,000-pound (6,400 kilograms) telecom satellite that will be operated by California-based company ViaSat. But ViaSat-3 went to space with two companions: Arcturus, a communications satellite from San Francisco-based Astranis Space Technologies, and GS-1, a cubesat from Washington-based Gravity Space.
Fairing reentry on the ViaSat-3 mission was the hottest and fastest we’ve ever attempted. The fairings re-entered the atmosphere greater than 15x the speed of sound, creating a large trail of plasma in its wake pic.twitter.com/VgdlH6r3yRMay 2, 2023
The Falcon Heavy consists of three first stages of SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket. The central booster is topped with an upper stage and the payloads, which are encased in a fairing.
The three first stages are designed to be reusable, as is the fairing. The boosters on the April 30 launch were not recovered, because they expended all their fuel getting the heavy payload to distant geostationary orbit. But SpaceX apparently did aim to recover the fairings after the flight.
Falcon Heavy’s first flight was in February 2018, a test that sent Elon Musk‘s red Tesla Roadster into orbit with a mannequin nicknamed Starman at the wheel.
Falcon Heavy has now launched a total of six times, including twice this year. The other 2023 flight was a mission for the U.S. Space Force that launched in January, dubbed USSF-67.
Falcon Heavy used to be SpaceX’s most powerful rocket, but it was eclipsed when the company’s huge Starship vehicle lifted off for the first time on April 20. The test flight soared as high as 24 miles (39 km) until SpaceX deliberately destroyed the spacecraft during a tumble. SpaceX and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration are investigating the cause and lessons learned; environmental groups have sued the FAA in the wake of the launch, saying the agency didn’t properly assess the damage the vehicle could cause to the area around the launch site.
Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of “Why Am I Taller (opens in new tab)?” (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).