StarLink’s first launch of the SpaceX year is now following delays in a major ridesare mission that had to change schedule.
Known as Starlink-16 or Starlink V1 L16, the mission will be the 16th launch of Business Satellite Communications v1.0 and the 17th launch of Starlink overall. It was originally scheduled to watch the first dedicated release of the Smallsat program, which was released on January 14, that the Transporter-1 mission dropped (NET) at the earliest on January 21 after a series of chaotic rapid fire events earlier this year.
Scheduled to launch NET 1:23 p.m. EST (18:23 UTC) On January 17, Starlink-16 became the second SpaceX launch of its second year. Progress towards this working date became visible when the Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) drone ship quickly pulled out the latest Falcon 9 “catch” and left Port Canaveral for the second time this year on January 13th. Moving about 633 km (~ 400 miles) northeast, the autonomous rocket landing platform is on schedule (and set to be in the right place) to support the Starlink launch around January 17th.
Reading through the comments made on January 12 by a 45th Space Wing Colonel, the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Base (CCAFS) expect to support 53 launches in 2021, of which 42-44 to be assigned to SpaceX.
That number coincides with a recent note from CEO Elon Musk that SpaceX aims to complete up to 48 launches this year, 4-6 of which are likely to fly off Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. If SpaceX manages to launch 40+ Florida in 2021, it is safe to say that half – if not more – will be Starlink missions. In other words, SpaceX’s upcoming Starlink-16 launch is probably the first of about two dozen scheduled for the next 12 months, possibly orbiting about 1,500 satellites in a single year.
Maybe just three days after the scheduled release of the Starlink-16, which of SpaceX’s five ready-made Falcon 9 amplifiers has been commissioned to support the mission. The Falcon 9 B1049 is (numerically) the best candidate, having last started at the end of November – 54 days before January 17th. The Falcon 9 B1058 is the next “older” in the sense that it is the second recently released, giving SpaceX about 40 days to turn the booster for the Starlink-16.
Regardless of the amplifier chosen by SpaceX, it is all guaranteed to result in one of the fastest Falcon 9 switches ever – a less and less important milestone as the company works aggressively to reduce the average launcher time. Chances are also good that the Starlink-16 will have at least half a flight-proven fairing, as SpaceX continues to gain experience retrieving and reusing carbon carbon nosecones.
Assuming the Starlink-16 has the usual 60 spacecraft, the success will mean that SpaceX has officially launched more than 1,000 Starlink satellites since the special launches began a year and a half ago in May 2019. Overall, a successful launch will leave SpaceX with about 940 operating spacecraft in orbit – half or more of which are either increasingly or gradually increasing their orbits.