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SpaceX’s upcoming Starlink launch to break Falcon 9 fairing reuse record

SpaceX has revealed that its upcoming launch of the Starlink will mark a new first for the reuse of the Falcon 9 payload fairing, reaching a milestone that required the booster to be reused 18 months in less than a year.

The Starlink-12 mission (v1.0 L12) is scheduled to take off no earlier than (NET) 14:19 EDT (18:19 UTC) on Thursday September 17, SpaceX’s eleventh mission only in 2020 and the thirteenth in general. If things go according to plan, it could leave the nascent SpaceX constellation just about two months after the start of the first public beta tests of the Starlink Internet service.

Meanwhile, the Falcon 9 booster B1

058 will attempt its third launch less than four months after its in-flight debut, an unprecedented reuse rate for SpaceX. In addition to ensuring that the B1058 becomes SpaceX’s proud first and second place holder for turnaround (time between launches), the mission also continues an unexpected trend: the near extinction of Falcon 9 static fire tests.

The Falcon 9 B1058 was last launched on July 20, representing a 59-day turnaround if SpaceX’s Starlink-12 program is valid. (Richard Angle)

SpaceX’s first successful Falcon landing occurred in December 2015, just a few months earlier than five years ago. In March 2017, two years later, SpaceX reused a Falcon 9 booster on an orbital-class launch for the first time in history. About 21 months after that historic milestone, SpaceX launched the Booster Falcon 9 itself for the third time, kicking off an unstoppable series of reusability firsts that continue to be made to this day.

Now, SpaceX says it is about to launch the same half of the Falcon 9 payload fairing for the third time in a significant and unexpected first for fairing reuse. Constructed primarily of a carbon fiber and aluminum honeycomb composite material, the Falcon fairings are noticeably more fragile and reach much higher altitudes and speeds than the boosters that SpaceX cut their teeth during recovery and reuse.

SpaceX’s most recent launch saw the Falcon 9 booster B1048 suffer the rocket’s first in-flight engine failure since October 2012, followed by an unsuccessful recovery attempt. (Richard Angle)
Although SpaceX suffered an anomaly in flight and lost a Booster Falcon 9, the company managed to recover a reused payload fairing – pictured here – for the first time on March 18. (Richard Angle)

Compared to enhancing reuse, it is rather the result. SpaceX first managed to launch the same Falcon 9 booster three times in December 2018, ~ 33 months after the booster was first reused. Measured by SpaceX’s first fairing reuse, completed in November 2019 as part of the first launch of Starlink v1.0 (Starlink-1), the company will have managed to break through the barrier of fairing reuse at three flights less than 11 months later – three times faster than SpaceX’s booster reuse program it took to reach the same milestone.

It is beginning to appear that the static fires of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 have become an endangered species. (SpaceX)

No more static fires?

Meanwhile, SpaceX appears to be turning its back on Falcon 9 launch operations. Of all 93 Falcon 9 launches since the rocket’s debut in June 2010, each was preceded by a combined wet-clothes test (WDR) and a static fire test a few days or weeks before take-off. By effectively simulating a 1: 1 launch up to the exact moment before takeoff, SpaceX used static fires to verify vehicle health and minor quality assurance interruptions of the firewall the entire time it was firing rockets.

In a major operational change that nearly flew under the radar, SpaceX appears to have killed the practice of universal pre-launch static fires starting with Starlink-8 in June 2020. Including Starlink-8, of the seven launches that SpaceX has completed in the past three months, only three (GPS III SV03, Starlink-9 and Starlink-10) included the static fire tests of the Falcon 9 before take-off. A step forward, Two of the four static fire launches were for major commercial missions – in other words, not the risk of retreat on SpaceX’s Starlink launches.

Static SpaceX shot the B1060 ahead of its maiden launch on June 30. (Richard Angle)
The Falcon 9 B1051 was electrically fired prior to Starlink-9, its fifth launch. (Richard Angle)
Finally, the Falcon 9 B1049 was electrically fired before its sixth launch. (Richard Angle)

To date, Falcon 9 has completed 65 successful launches since the last catastrophic vehicle failure (Amos-6, September 2016) and 74 consecutive successful launches if Amos-6 (which never took off) is ruled out. As of 2020, it is the most reliable US launch vehicle currently in operation, surpassing ULA’s Atlas V several months ago. Simply put, it isn’t in reality surprising (in retrospect) that SpaceX has started to relax its stance on static fires, especially considering there is no other Earth launch provider that fires missiles before every to launch.

Most likely, SpaceX will continue to statically fire Falcon 9 and heavy boosters on the launch pad prior to their in-flight debut and at the customer’s request. If launch data or post-flight inspection data are cause for concern, SpaceX may still choose to use static fire repeaters as a precaution. Additionally, SpaceX shows no signs of ending the practice of running full-booster static fires in McGregor, Texas as part of acceptance tests, still leaving it a step beyond traditional rocket makers, which only fire single static engines.

Regardless, SpaceX’s 13th launch of Starlink will be streamed as usual, with coverage starting approximately 15 minutes before takeoff.

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