Mysterious equipment spotted on SpaceX drone ship at Port Canaveral
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket blasts off from Kennedy Space Center with the EchoStar 23 communications satellite on Thursday, March 16, 2017.
Stephen Marr had his suspicions when he photographed a mysterious piece of equipment atop SpaceX's drone ship at Port Canaveral on Monday.
"I knew there was something different there," Marr, 34, said.
So he did what any lover of space and social media would do: He posted it online. Reddit users quickly propelled Marr's clear, high-resolution photo to the top of the website's SpaceX community and so began discussion that the object was likely a highly anticipated robot that would interact with Falcon 9 first stages.
"Optimus Prime," as some have nicknamed it, could one day secure first stages after they land on SpaceX's autonomous spaceport drone ships. Like previous upgrades, it could cut down on costs, number of required personnel and turnaround time between launches. It could also improve safety. "Optimus Prime" refers to a character from "Transformers."
Ricky Lim, senior director of launch operations for SpaceX, told FLORIDA TODAY the device is “in the testing phase” and is a “future capability” that SpaceX plans to introduce as soon as it passes the test regimen.
“I don’t think it’s very far away” from being used, Lim said. “But it’s new.”
SpaceX did not comment when asked about its functionality and features.
Lim said SpaceX doesn’t have an official name yet for the robot, joking that, for the time being, “we’ll let Reddit name it for us.”
Marr's photo bucks the trend of grainy cellphone images – it was captured with a telephoto lens during a six-minute helicopter tour of the Space Coast. Marr's girlfriend, Tiffany Guerin, is a professional photographer and was with him during the tour.
"A couple hours later, I checked it, and it was just blowing up," Marr said. "Everybody seemed to really appreciate that picture."
For Marr, the photograph solidifies his and Guerin's decision to move to Cocoa Beach from Tennessee six weeks ago after fostering a love for space.
"I love it. Obviously it's the reason we moved down here," Marr said.
"This is kind of my Super Bowl, to watch SpaceX do the things they do," he said. "Then you've got Blue Origin coming up, and everyone's innovating. It's just an exciting time to be watching this kind of stuff."
[More: Follow Stephen Marr on Instagram]
SpaceX's next mission – now targeting no earlier than March 29 from Kennedy Space Center – will be closely watched. It will mark the first time the company attempts to fly a used, or "flight proven," Falcon 9 first stage and brings full circle CEO Elon Musk's vision for rocket reusability. It was first flown nearly a year ago in April 2016 on the CRS-8 resupply mission to the International Space Station.
On board will be SES-10, a commercial communications satellite built by Airbus Space and Defense for Luxembourg-based SES. Once deployed, the satellite will significantly increase communications bandwidth for Latin America.
SpaceX will attempt to land the flight proven first stage on the "Of Course I Still Love You" drone ship stationed in the Atlantic Ocean.