SpaceX Starlink launch to smash California pad turnaround record

Update: SpaceX’s Thursday Starlink 3-2 launch was automatically aborted less than a minute before liftoff by Falcon 9’s onboard computers. The company will try again tomorrow, Friday, July 22nd, at 10:39 pm PDT (17:39 UTC).

SpaceX says it’s on track to launch another batch of polar Starlink satellites from the West Coast as early as 10:39 am PDT (17:39 UTC), Thursday, July 21st.

On top of featuring one of the fastest Falcon 9 booster turnarounds ever, SpaceX’s Starlink 3-2 launch will more than halve the fastest turnaround of its Vandenberg Space Force Base (VSFB) SLC-4E pad, potentially rendering it capable of launching dozens of times per year.

Barring 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, meaning that SLC-4E is on track to break its turnaround record twice in a row.

For most of the time since SpaceX began using 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 pad supported a total of 16 successful Falcon 9 launches. 15 occurred between January 2016 and November 2020, averaging one launch every four months and never flying twice in less than 36 days. Between January 2019 and September 2021, the pad only supported three launches and even went 17 months without a single use.

When they aren’t shrouded in fog, VSFB’s launch pads are some of the most scenic in the world. (SpaceX)

In late 2021, something changed. On top of the introduction of dedicated West Coast Starlink launches, apparent upgrades to the pad’s turnaround capabilities have allowed it to support more launches than usual. In the ten months since SLC-4E exited its hibernation period, it’s supported nine Falcon 9 launches – five for Starlink and four for customers. Prior to 2021, SLC-4E never supported more than six launches in a ten-month period, meaning that the pad is already operating at a 50% higher capacity.

SpaceX, however, apparently wasn’t satisfied and is on track to substantially expand SLC-4’s operational constraints yet again, more than halving its minimum demonstrated turnaround time. By definition, that also doubles the pad’s operational ceiling, meaning that it could theoretically support about 34 launches per year with no downtime. SpaceX appears to have achieved that expansion by applying the same upgrades it already made to its two East Coast launch pads, LC-39A and LC-40, which both set respective turnaround records of approximately nine days and eight days earlier this year. SLC-4E will comfortably bookend the two with its imminent 10.7-day turnaround.

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

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

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

Pad aside, Starlink 3-2 will be 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. Tune in below around 10:30 am PDT (17:30 UTC) to watch Falcon 9’s 32nd launch of 2022.

SpaceX Starlink launch to smash California pad turnaround record
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