[Update: delayed] SpaceX Falcon 9 fleet to kick off 2021 with a flurry of launches

Update: SpaceX’s first launch of 2021 appears to be slipping from its January 4th target after drone ship Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) returned to port less than a day after leaving.

It’s possible that SpaceX could still manage a January 4th launch if JRTI departs again within the next 24-36 hours, but temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) used to keep aircraft out of the launch area were simultaneously retracted, implying that a delay is far more likely. Stay tuned for updates on SpaceX’s Turksat 5A launch campaign.

Right on schedule, one of SpaceX’s two drone ships left Port Canaveral on December 30th, heading into the Atlantic Ocean to prepare for the company’s first launch and landing of 2021.

As always, rocket launches (and landings, in the case of SpaceX) are exceptionally complex events at risk of a wide range of possible delays, ranging from weather to hardware failure. However, based on well-sourced launch calendars, the mission – known as Turksat 5A – is expected to be Falcon 9 booster B1060’s fourth launch in six months, as well as SpaceX’s first of up to four launches in January alone.

Barring delays, Falcon 9 is scheduled to launch the 3500 kg (7700 lb) Airbus-built Turksat 5A communications satellite from Cape Canaveral Launch Complex 40 (LC-40) sometime between 8:27 pm and 12:29 am EST on January 4th and 5th (01:27-05:29 UTC, 5 Jan).

Pictured here on November 20th, a SpaceX drone ship has left Port Canaveral ahead of the company’s first launch of the new year. (Richard Angle)

Drone ship Just Read The Instructions’ (JRTI) December 30th departure marks the first public signs of SpaceX’s preparations for its first orbital launch of the new year. It also serves as a reminder of the company’s major ambitions in 2021.

On average, Atlantic Ocean booster recoveries necessitate around 5-7 days at sea from port departure to port return, meaning that SpaceX’s pair of East Coast drone ships could theoretically support 4-6 launches per month with zero downtime for maintenance, repairs, or at-sea weather delays. According to CEO Elon Musk, SpaceX wants to launch 48 times in 2021, meaning that the company could find itself operating its rocket recovery fleet near-continuously without the introduction of a long-awaited third drone ship.

In January alone, multiple separate launch calendars forecast four SpaceX launches, beginning with Turksat 5A on January 4th, SpaceX’s first dedicated Smallsat Program launch (Transporter-1) on January 14th, and one or two ~60-satellite Starlink missions in the second half of the month. To achieve its 48-launch goal, January will have to have four launches and every other month of 2021 will have to reach a similar cadence. SpaceX completed its first four-launch month ever in November 2020.

[Update: delayed] SpaceX Falcon 9 fleet to kick off 2021 with a flurry of launches
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