A new SpaceX unmanned ship named “A Shortfall of Gravitas” was towed to Port Canaveral Thursday, completing a shuffle of SpaceX’s rocket landing platforms to support incoming launches from Florida and California.
“A Shortfall of Gravitas” has been pulled from a Louisiana construction facility after completing an initial series of sea trials. SpaceX teams at Port Canaveral will finish preparing the unmanned ship to land the Falcon boosters at sea.
The name of the new landing pad is a reference to the Gravitas Great Deficit Experiment, a spacecraft featured in the science fiction series “Culture” by the late Scottish author Iain M. Banks.
The other two SpaceX drone ships were also named after the planet-sized conscious ships in Banks’ novels: “Just read the instructions” and “Of course I still love you.”
Drone ships allow SpaceX to recover and reuse Falcon 9’s boosters, reducing costs and increasing the company’s launch rate.
With three drone ships now in its fleet, SpaceX is set up for the regular rhythm of flights from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, after a lull in Falcon 9 launch activity at its West Coast launch site.
SpaceX has launched only one Falcon 9 rocket mission from Vandenberg in the past two years. In that mission, the Falcon 9 booster returned to land on a platform near the launch site at Vandenberg.
Starting in the last week of July, SpaceX plans to launch a series of Falcon 9 missions from Vandenberg that will carry Starlink Internet satellites into orbit. The Falcon 9 boosters used in these launches will land at sea due to the heavy weight of the Starlink payloads, leaving insufficient fuel on the rocket to reverse course and return to the launch site.
SpaceX recently moved its “Of Course I Still Love You” drone ship from Florida to the Port of Los Angeles in anticipation of upcoming Starlink missions. The company is expected to launch Starlink assignments from Vandenberg once a month, as it begins the next phase of its global web deployment.
The ship boarded a barge through the Panama Canal before arriving in Southern California on July 6.
SpaceX will use the new drone ship in rotation with “just read the instructions” to support missions from Cape Canaveral. The company previously used a similar rotation of the other two unmanned ships in Port Canaveral, to support 20 Falcon 9 launches and landings in the first half of this year.
It could take up to a week to deploy the drone, retrieve the missile and bring it back to port, and this assumes no launch delay. Response times can be longer once the booster is offloaded in port, and the vessel is ready for another voyage out to sea. Having two unmanned ships in Florida will allow SpaceX to continue its busy launch schedule.
Later this year, SpaceX will deploy both of its two sea-landing ships Florida from side boosters for the upcoming launch of the US Space Force’s Falcon Heavy rocket. SpaceX will spend the central stage of a Falcon Heavy on this launch due to the mission’s requirements to put military payloads into high-altitude geosynchronous orbit, according to a Space Force spokesperson.
Each drone ship is decorated in a bullseye shape with the “X” logo. The landing pad is roughly the size of a football field, and the ships are based on Marmac barge hulls that were originally built for other purposes.
Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, announced that the company was building a third unmanned ship in 2018.
SpaceX’s self-driving drone,
Deficiency in Gravitas pic.twitter.com/hNZ5U7nxUg
– Elon Musk July 9, 2021
“The team did a great job! Musk tweeted Thursday, noting SpaceX’s work to prepare giant oil rigs for the launch and landing of the company’s next-generation heavy-lift launch vehicle.
The new drone ship has a sleeker look than SpaceX’s first two missile landing ships. It has a Starlink antenna to connect to SpaceX’s satellite broadband network, and support equipment is positioned inside the ship’s hull to provide better protection against missile blast during landing.
Underwater thrusters allow the ship to stay in the ocean to wait for each missile to land. A support crew is stationed on a nearby ship.
There are also lighting improvements to “A Shortfall of Gravitas,” and Musk tweeted that the new ship is designed to be fully autonomous, unlike the other two ships, which require a tug to travel to and from the landing area.
SpaceX has successfully retrieved Falcon boosters 89 times since the company’s first rocket landing in December 2015. The first successful booster landing on an unmanned ship was in April 2016.
Sixty-six SpaceX Falcon booster landings to date have occurred on the unmanned vessel, with another 20 successful landings on two SpaceX landing areas on land at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Three Falcon boosters have returned to land at Vandenberg Space Force Base.
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