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Artist's rendering of a payload fairing being jettisoned
An example of clamshell fairing of Falcon 9 during testing, 27 May 2013

A payload fairing is a nose cone used to protect a spacecraft (launch vehicle payload) against the impact of dynamic pressure and aerodynamic heating during launch through an atmosphere. More recently,[when?] an additional function on some flights has been to maintain the cleanroom environment for precision instruments.[clarification needed]

Once outside the atmosphere the fairing is jettisoned, exposing the payload to the space environment.

The standard payload fairing is typically a cone-cylinder combination, due to aerodynamic considerations; however specialized fairings are in use as well. The type of fairing which separates into two halves upon jettisoning is called a clamshell fairing by way of analogy to the bifurcating shell of a clam.

In some cases the fairing may enclose both the payload and the upper stage of the rocket, such as on Atlas V and Proton M.[1]

If the payload is attached both to the booster's core structures and to the fairing, the payload may still be affected by the fairing's bending loads, as well as inertia loads due to vibrations caused by gusts and buffeting.[2]

Traditionally, fairings either burned up in the atmosphere or were destroyed upon impacting the ocean. On March 30, 2017, SpaceX successfully retrieved a fairing intact for the first time in history.[3]


Mission failures caused by payload fairingsEdit

In some cases, the fairing is planned to separate after cutoff of the upper stage, and in others, the separation is to occur before a cutoff, but after the vehicle has transcended the densest part of the atmosphere. Failure of the fairing to separate in these cases may cause the craft to fail to reach orbit, due to the extra mass.

The Augmented Target Docking Adapter in orbit, with its payload fairing still attached

The Augmented Target Docking Adapter, to be used for the Gemini 9A manned mission, was successfully placed into orbit by an Atlas SLV-3 in June 1966. But when the Gemini crew rendezvoused with it, they discovered the fairing had failed to open and separate, making docking impossible. Two lanyards, which should have been removed before flight, were still in place. The cause was determined to be a launch crew error.

In 1999, the launch of the IKONOS-1 Earth observation satellite failed after the payload fairing of the Athena II rocket did not open properly, preventing the satellite from reaching orbit.[4]

On February 24, 2009, NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory satellite failed to reach orbit after liftoff presumably because the fairing on the Taurus XL launch vehicle failed to separate, causing the vehicle to retain too much mass and subsequently fall back to Earth; whatever didn't burn up landed in the Indian Ocean near Antarctica.[5][6]

The same happened to the Naro-1, South Korea's first carrier rocket, launched on 25 August 2009. During the launch half of the payload's fairing failed to separate, and as a result, the rocket was thrown off course. The satellite did not reach a stable orbit.[7]

On March 4, 2011 NASA's Glory satellite launch failed to reach orbit after liftoff due to a fairing separation failure on the Orbital Sciences Taurus XL Launch Vehicle, ending up in the Indian Ocean.[8] This failure represented the second consecutive failure of a fairing on an Orbital Sciences Taurus XL vehicle.[9] NASA subsequently decided to switch the launch vehicle for the Orbiting Carbon Observatory's replacement, OCO-2, from a Taurus to a Delta II rocket.[10]

On 31 August 2017, ISRO's IRNSS-1H satellite failed to deploy after payload fairing of the rocket PSLV-C39 failed to separate. As a result of extra mass, the rocket could not reach the desire orbit despite each stage's performance being nominal. The payload got separated internally, but got struck within the heat shield.[11][12]




  1. ^ A Conceptual Design for the Space Launch capability of the peacekeeper ICBM [1]
  2. ^ Thomas P. Sarafin, Wiley J. (1995) "Spacecraft Structures and Mechanisms--from Concept to Launch", ISBN 0-7923-3476-0 p. 47
  3. ^ Lopatto, Elizabeth (31 March 2017). "SpaceX even landed the nose cone from its historic used Falcon 9 rocket launch". The Verge. Retrieved 31 March 2017.
  4. ^ Athena Investigation Points to Payload Fairing Archived 2013-10-29 at the Wayback Machine.
  5. ^ "Launch Mishap Ends OCO Mission"
  6. ^ "NASA Satellite Crashes Before Reaching Orbit"
  7. ^ "S. Korean satellite lost shortly after launch: gov't". Yonhap News. Retrieved 2009-08-26.
  8. ^ Buck, Joshua (February 19, 2013). "NASA Releases Glory Taurus XL Launch Failure Report Summary". NASA. Retrieved March 16, 2014.
  9. ^ "NASA science satellite lost in Taurus launch failure". SpaceFlight Now. Retrieved 2011-03-04.
  10. ^
  11. ^ "Setback for ISRO: Launch of navigation satellite IRNSS-1H unsuccessful". The Economic Times. 2017-08-31. Retrieved 2017-08-31.
  12. ^ "ISRO says IRNSS-1H launch unsuccessful, heat shields failed to separate". The Indian Express. 2017-08-31. Retrieved 2017-08-31.
  13. ^ Brian Harvey, "Europe's Space Programme: To Ariane and Beyond", ISBN 1-85233-722-2, p. 150
  14. ^ "Atlas V Launch Services User's Guide" (PDF). United Launch Alliance. March 2010. Retrieved 2010-05-24.
  15. ^ "Fairing". SpaceX. 2013-04-12. Retrieved 2015-07-30.