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Known as 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 overall. Originally scheduled to follow SpaceX’s first dedicated Smallsat Program rideshare launch on January 14th, that Transporter-1 mission slipped to no earlier than (NET) January 21st after a rapid-fire series of chaotic events earlier this year.
Scheduled to launch NET 1:23 pm EST (18:23 UTC) on January 17th, Starlink-16 thus became SpaceX’s defacto second launch of the year. Progress towards that working date became visible when, drone ship Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) quickly offloaded its most recent Falcon 9 booster ‘catch’ and departed Port Canaveral for the second time this year on January 13th. Headed some 633 km (~400 mi) northeast, the autonomous rocket landing platform is right on schedule (and set to be in the right place) to support a Starlink launch around January 17th.
Reading between the lines of comments made on January 12th by a 45th Space Wing colonel, the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) expect to support many as 53 launches in 2021, some 42-44 of which can be attributed to SpaceX.
That figure meshes with CEO Elon Musk’s recent note that SpaceX is aiming to complete as many as 48 launches this year, 4-6 of which will likely fly out of the company’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, California facilities. If SpaceX does manage 40+ Florida launches in 2021, it’s safe to say that half – if not more – will be Starlink missions. In other words, SpaceX’s imminent Starlink-16 launch is likely the first of roughly two-dozen planned over the next 12 months, potentially orbiting almost 1500 satellites in a single year.
Perhaps just three days out from Starlink-16’s scheduled launch, which of SpaceX’s five readily-available Falcon 9 boosters is assigned to support the mission. Falcon 9 B1049 is (numerically speaking) the best candidate, having last launched in late November – 54 days prior to January 17th. Falcon 9 B1058 is the next ‘oldest’ in the sense that it’s the second to last most recently launched, giving SpaceX roughly 40 days to turn the booster around for Starlink-16.
Regardless of the booster SpaceX selects, it’s all but guaranteed to result in one of the fastest Falcon 9 turnarounds ever – an increasingly less significant milestone as the company works to aggressively cut the average time between booster launches. Chances are also good that Starlink-16 will sport at least one flight-proven fairing half as SpaceX continues to gain experience recovering and reusing the carbon composite nosecones.
Assuming Starlink-16 features the usual 60 spacecraft, success will mean that SpaceX has officially launched more than 1000 Starlink satellites since dedicated launches began a year and a half ago in May 2019. Altogether, a successful launch would leave SpaceX with roughly 940 functional spacecraft in orbit – half or more of which are currently either raising or phasing their orbits.