SpaceX Starlink launch to break California record for turnaround operation

SpaceX Starlink launch to break California record for turnaround operation

SpaceX says it is about to launch another batch of polar Starlink satellites from the west coast as early as 10:39 PDT (17:39 UTC), Thursday 21 July.

In addition to having one of the fastest Falcon 9 booster orbits ever, SpaceX’s Starlink 3-2 launch will more than halve the fastest orbit of the Vandenberg Space Force Base (VSFB) SLC-4E pad, potentially making it into able to shoot up dozens of times a year.

With the exception of delays, Starlink 3-2 is scheduled to launch from SLC-4E just 10 days and 14 hours after the same pad supported Starlink 3-1. The current record – 22 days and 11 hours – was set between the launches of Germany’s SARah-1 radar satellite and Starlink 3-1, which means that the SLC-4E is about to break the spin record twice in a row.

For most of the time since SpaceX began using the SLC-4E for Falcon 9 launches in 2013, the pad has rarely supported more than one launch every few months. Between 2013 and 2020, the pillow supported a total of 16 successful Falcon 9 launches. 15 occurred between January 2016 and November 2020, on average one launch every four months and never twice in less than 36 days. Between January 2019 and September 2021, the pillow supported only three launches and lasted up to 17 months without a single use.

When not shrouded in mist, VSFB’s launch pads are some of the most scenic in the world. (SpaceX)

At the end of 2021, something changed. On top of the introduction of dedicated West Coast Starlink launches, apparent upgrades to the pillow’s turnaround features have allowed it to support more launches than usual. In the ten months since the SLC-4E went into hibernation, it has supported nine Falcon 9 launches – five for Starlink and four for customers. Prior to 2021, the SLC-4E never supported more than six launches over a ten-month period, meaning the pad already operates at 50% higher capacity.

However, SpaceX was apparently not satisfied and is on track to significantly expand the SLC-4’s operational limitations again, more than halving the minimum demonstrated processing time. By definition, it also doubles the pillow’s operating ceiling, which means that it can theoretically support around 34 launches per year without downtime. SpaceX appears to have achieved that expansion using the same upgrades it has already done on its two East Coast launch pads, the LC-39A and LC-40, both of which set respective orbital records of about nine days and eight days earlier this year. The SLC-4E will comfortably end the two with its upcoming 10.7-day processing time.

Of course, no launch pad routinely operates at its demonstrated minimum, but a leap forward like the SLC-4E (22.5 to 10.7 days) guarantees anything but that the pad will be able to launch much more frequently as long as rockets and payloads are available. Over the past seven months, the LC-39A has averaged one launch every 19 days – more than double the 9.1-day record. The LC-40, which generally deals with simpler missions and only one of three Falcon rocket variants, has managed one launch every 13 days in the same period – closer to the record of 8.2 days, but still some distance away.

Starlink 3-2 will be the Falcon 9 booster B1071’s second launch in 33 days, one of the fastest booster reuses yet. (SpaceX)

Although the SLC-4E’s average cadence is somewhere between SpaceX’s two other pads going forward, it will still likely double its contribution to the company’s annual launch cadence and help accelerate the distribution of the Starlink Internet constellation. If all three pads manage an average of about one launch every two weeks, a goal well within reach, SpaceX will have the capacity to launch 72 Falcon rockets per year – more than any other family of rockets in history.

Aside, Starlink 3-2 will be the Falcon 9 booster B1071’s fourth launch overall and second launch in 33 days – SoaceX’s fifth fastest Falcon booster reuse since the practice began in March 2017. Set below around noon. 10:30 PDT (17:30). UTC) to see the Falcon 9s 32nd launch in 2022.

SpaceX Starlink launch to break California record for turnaround operation

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