SpaceX’s first Starlink launch of the year is now next, after a major rideshare mission delay forced a schedule mix.
Known as the Starlink-16 or Starlink V1 L16, the mission will be SpaceX’s 16th launch of operational v1.0 communications satellites and its 17th Starlink launch in general. Originally scheduled to follow SpaceX’s first dedicated Smallsat program rideshare launch on January 14, the Transporter-1 mission went to earliest (NET) on January 21 after a rapid fire series of chaotic events earlier this year.
Scheduled for launch of NET 13:23 EST (18:23 UTC) on January 17, Starlink-16 thus became SpaceX̵
Reading between the comments on January 12 from a 45th Colonel in the Space Wing, Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) expects to support as many as 53 launches in 2021, of which 42-44 can be attributed to SpaceX.
This figure is consistent with CEO Elon Musk’s recent note that SpaceX aims to complete as many as 48 launches this year, 4-6 of which are likely to fly out of the company’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. If SpaceX manages 40+ Florida launches in 2021, it’s safe to say that half – if not more – will be Starlink missions. In other words, SpaceX’s upcoming Starlink-16 launch is likely to be the first of approximately two dozen planned over the next 12 months, potentially orbiting nearly 1,500 satellites in a single year.
Perhaps just three days out of Starlink-16’s scheduled launch, which of SpaceX’s five readily available Falcon 9 boosters has been allocated to support the mission. The Falcon 9 B1049 is (numerically speaking) the best candidate last launched in late November – 54 days before January 17th. The Falcon 9 B1058 is the second ‘oldest’ in the sense that it is the penultimate to be last launched, giving SpaceX about 40 days to turn the booster to the Starlink-16.
Whichever booster SpaceX chooses, all in all, it results in one of the fastest Falcon 9 turnarounds ever – an increasingly minor milestone as the company works to aggressively reduce the average time between booster launches. Chances are also good that Starlink-16 will have at least one flight-tested fairing half, as SpaceX continues to gain experience in recycling and reusing carbon composite nosecones.
Assuming that Starlink-16 has the usual 60 spacecraft, success will mean that SpaceX has officially launched more than 1000 Starlink satellites since dedicated launches started a year and a half ago in May 2019. All in all, a successful launch leave SpaceX with approximately 940 functional spacecraft. in orbit – half or more of which are currently either raising or phasing out their orbits.