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SpaceX Completes Successful Launch, Narrowly Misses Catching $6 Million Nose Cone

SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket Thursday morning.

But the hard part came next: trying to catch the rocket's falling nose cone with a big net on a ship in the ocean.

Wait, what?

Part of the SpaceX ethos is " rocket reusability." By reusing as much of the rocket as possible, the company hopes to lower the cost of sending objects and people into space — and make it possible for people to live on other planets.

So one goal of Thursday's launch was to catch the rocket's "fairing," or nose cone — the covering that protects the rocket's payload — after it's deployed and falls to Earth. (In the launch video above, you can see the fairing deploy at 19:56.)

"Going to try to catch the giant fairing (nosecone) of Falcon 9 as it falls back from space at about eight times the speed of sound," Musk wrote on Instagram. "It has onboard thrusters and a guidance system to bring it through the atmosphere intact, then releases a parafoil and our ship, named Mr. Steven, with basically a giant catcher's mitt welded on, tries to catch it."

SpaceX has already been reusing its rockets, having figured out how to successfully land themon either solid ground or boats.

This was the first time the company was trying to catch the nose cone. Why go to the trouble? The part costs about $6 million.

But it turns out it's hard to catch things falling from space.

"Missed by a few hundred meters, but fairing landed intact in water," Musk tweeted. "Should be able catch it with slightly bigger chutes to slow down descent."

With all the fun of a giant seafaring catcher's mitt, it can be easy to overlook what SpaceX actually sent into orbit.

The primary payload in Thursday's mission was a satellite called PAZ, from the Spanish company Hisdesat. PAZ will orbit our planet 15 times a day with an advanced radar instrument that can generate 100 highly detailed images daily of the Earth, even through clouds.

The rocket also carried two small experimental satellites that are part of an effort by Musk to beam fast, reliable Internet to Earth from low orbit, as The Washington Post's Brian Fung notes:

"The test satellites, dubbed Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b, are a part of a years-long plan by chief executive Elon Musk to create a fleet of orbiting devices to blanket the globe in wireless broadband connectivity. SpaceX ultimately intends to put about 12,000 broadband satellites in low Earth orbit, and Sunday's payload will mark the company's first attempt at realizing the dream. The initial satellites in the network are expected to come online next year.

"Satellite broadband is already available. But it's slow, expensive and not really accessible to the masses. The goal of SpaceX and almost a dozen other companies is to deliver fast, reliable Internet access to virtually everyone."

Though it missed the catch, SpaceX may attempt to fish the nose cone out of the water, as it has on previous occasions.

Or, as happened in 2015, maybe some dudes will find it on the beach.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.