SpaceX drone ship heads to sea for record-breaking Starlink launch

(Richard Angle)

SpaceX’s newest drone ship is on its way out into the Atlantic Ocean for a Starlink mission that will break the company’s record for annual launch cadence.

Somewhat confusing known as Starlink Shell 4 Launch 3 or Starlink 4-3, the batch of 53 laser-linked V1.5 satellites is scheduled to fly before Starlink 4-2 for unknown reasons and at the same time as Starlink 2-3 is scheduled to fly before Starlink 2-2 on the West Coast. Regardless of the seemingly unstable launch order, perhaps related to the recent introduction of Starlink’s new V1.5 satellite design, drone ship A Shortfall of Gravitas’ (ASOG) November 27th Port Canaveral confirms that SpaceX is more or less on track to launch Starlink 4-3 no earlier than (NET) 6:20 pm EST (23:20 UTC) on Wednesday, December 1st.

In a bit of a return to stride after launching 20 times in the first six months but only three times in the entire third quarter of 2021, Starlink 4-3 is currently the first of four or even five SpaceX launches scheduled in the last month of the year. Nevertheless, if Starlink 4-3 is successful, it will also set SpaceX up to cross a milestone unprecedented in the history of satellite launches.

Specifically, Starlink 4-3 is SpaceX’s 16th dedicated Starlink launch of 2021 and will mark 951 Starlink satellites safely delivered to orbit since January 20th. If, as CEO Elon Musk has telegraphed is the plan, SpaceX intends to complete one more dedicated Starlink launch in December (either Starlink 2-2 or 2-3), the company could round out 2021 having launched more than a thousand satellites in a single year.

Thanks to Starlink, 2020 was the first year in history in which more than a thousand satellites (technically 1283) were launched into orbit. Now, in 2021, there’s a good chance that SpaceX Starlink launches alone will account for more than a thousand satellites launched in one year. Altogether, SpaceX will likely end the year having singlehandedly launched a total of more than 1240 satellites in 2021 – and despite only completing 3-4 Starlink launches in the last seven months of the year compared to 13 in the first five months.

For SpaceX and Starlink, that’s great news. In March and November 2018, the FCC approved two SpaceX applications to launch and operate constellations of ~4400 and ~7500 Starlink satellites – a total of around 11,900 satellites. To avoid having its licenses revoked, SpaceX – like all other FCC constellation applicants – is required to launch half of its licensed constellation within six years of its license receipts and full constellation within nine years. For SpaceX, that means it has to launch at least ~2200 satellites operating around 550 km (340 mi) and ~3750 satellites operating around 350 km (~220 mi) by March and November 2024, respectively.

With a bit less than 1700 Starlink satellites currently functioning in orbit, even if SpaceX merely repeats its 2021 cadence, it will be on track to outright finish Starlink’s first 4400-satellite phase by mid-2024 and should easily cross the halfway mark by mid-2022 – years ahead of schedule for both. However, simultaneously hitting Starlink’s very low Earth orbit (VLEO) deployment milestones will still be a massive challenge. Given that SpaceX has yet to launch a single VLEO Starlink spacecraft three years after license approval, it now has less than three years to launch ~3750 VLEO satellites on top of at least 500 more LEO satellites.

If SpaceX can replicate its H1 2021 Starlink launch cadence throughout 2022, completing at least 26 launches in 52 weeks, it may actually have a shot at pulling off a cadence close to what is needed to meet its FCC deployment requirements (an average of 1400 satellites per year for the next three years). If SpaceX simply aims for the average annual numbers needed to complete the full ~11,900-satellite Starlink constellation by November 2027, it will need to launch around 1800-2000 satellites per year – equivalent to 35-40 Falcon 9 rockets.

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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