A massive, claw-like structure photographed at a SpaceX launch site in south Texas has triggered speculation online that it could be a part of the company’s “Mechazilla” rocket-catching system.
The structure – initially spotted by photographer Nic Ansuini for the news website NASASpaceFlight – is reportedly situated near a construction site where engineers are working on a rocket-catching tower for SpaceX.
Mr Ansuini posted photographs of the claw-like structure on Twitter on Sunday.
SpaceX had earlier said it was working to “catch” rockets using “robot chopsticks” or mechanical arms attached to a launch tower.
— Nic Ansuini (@NicAnsuini) September 11, 2021
Teams are in the process of fitting the tower with hydraulic systems, fuel lines and actuator arms that will transform the massive structure into what the company’s founder Elon Musk nicknamed “Mechazilla”, likely derived from the “Mechagodzilla” character belonging to the Godzilla movie franchise.
The tower is expected to help guide used rockets back down onto the pad and could be part of a major test of the Mars-bound Starship craft later this year.
“SpaceX will try to catch largest ever flying object with robot chopsticks,” Musk posted on Twitter on 30 August, along with a video clip from the 1984 martial arts movie The Karate Kid.
SpaceX will try to catch largest ever flying object with robot chopsticks.
Success is not guaranteed, but excitement is!https://t.co/75yMgIWOwE
— Name (@elonmusk) August 30, 2021
It’s unclear whether the claws seen in the photographs will be a part of the tower’s quick disconnect arm or the “chopstick” catching system Musk mentioned.
A Twitter user who goes by the username “Erc X” posted an animation on the micro-blogging platform last month, showing a fully-operational tower “catching” a SpaceX Super Heavy booster as it returns from deploying a Starship to orbit. It then transfers the spent rocket to the launch stand.
In the animation, the actuator arms can be seen grabbing onto another Starship and stacking it on top of the Super Heavy rocket, after which a secondary arm moves into place once the two are stacked.
— Erc X (@ErcXspace) August 13, 2021
Musk responded to the tweet saying the animation was “pretty close” and adding that the rocket booster and arms “will move faster”.
“QD arm will steady booster for ship mate. And ship will be caught by Mechazilla too. As with booster, no landing legs. Those are only needed for moon & Mars until there is local infrastructure,” the SpaceX chief tweeted.
While some Twitter users speculate the claw-like structure in the recent photographs could be part of the mechanism that steadies boosters, some said the design may be part of the “chopstick” catching system.
Regardless of the function, it is expected to be part of the “Mechazilla” tower plan, according to NASASpaceflight.