SpaceX fires up Falcon 9 rocket for first California Starlink launch

Falcon 9 B1049 seen vertical at SLC-4E prior to its second launch, the eighth and final Iridium NEXT mission. (SpaceX)

SpaceX says it has successfully static fired the Falcon 9 rocket scheduled to support its first California launch in ten months and first dedicated West Coast Starlink mission ever.

Falcon 9 last used SpaceX’s Vandenberg Air/Space Force Base (VAFB) SLC-4 facilities in November 2020 when it successfully launched NASA and the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 6A Earth observation satellite – itself the company’s first West Coast launch in 16 months. Somewhat confusingly known as Starlink 2-1, SpaceX’s next West Coast launch is again set to end a significant hiatus – around ten months this time around.

However, barring surprises, Starlink 2-1 is also expected to mark the start of a new golden age for West Coast SpaceX launches.

Given that SpaceX has effectively ended the practice of static firing flight-proven Falcon 9 boosters before launch and the fact that both of the boosters (B1049 and B1051) believed to have been sent to Vandenberg are the most-flown vehicles in SpaceX’s fleet, it’s likely that today’s static fire was primarily a shakedown of its SLC-4E launch pad. Having just been inactive for the better part of a year, it’s likely that large portions of the pad were temporarily deactivated or mothballed, thus requiring a good amount of work to ready the facilities for another launch.

The successful static fire – likely featuring nine-flight booster B1049 – confirms that that work was satisfactory and that SLC-4E is now ready to support its first launch. According to SpaceX, though, the company “will announce a target date closer to” Starlink 2-1’s launch, implying that it could still be a week or more away. According to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, all future Starlink launches will feature satellites with the company’s custom-built laser interlinks – a component that has seemingly taken a few more months than expected to finalize and mass-produce.

SpaceX originally intended to kick off polar Starlink launches out of Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral, Florida as early as July or August. As of now, Starlink 2-1 is tracking closer to a mid-September launch with a Falcon 9 booster landing several hundred kilometers downrange on drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY), which returned to Port of Long Beach just a few days ago after a mysterious trip to a Mexican dry dock.

Once those laser interlinks are ready for flight, though, SpaceX is expected to more or less return to its H1 2021 stride with polar Starlink launches every 1-2 weeks for the rest of the year. Liquid oxygen shortages caused by the United States’ inept handling of the coronavirus pandemic and a recent resurgence of cases and hospitalizations could throttle SpaceX’s ambitions somewhat, but it’s difficult to say how LOx and semi-related semiconductor chip shortages will actually affect cadence until the company starts regularly launching again.

Eric Ralph: Eric Ralph is Teslarati's senior spaceflight reporter and has been covering the industry in some capacity for almost half a decade, largely spurred in 2016 by a trip to Mexico to watch Elon Musk reveal SpaceX's plans for Mars in person. Aside from spreading interest and excitement about spaceflight far and wide, his primary goal is to cover humanity's ongoing efforts to expand beyond Earth to the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere.
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