SpaceX schedules first West Coast Starlink launch after a quiet July

Falcon 9 B1051 stands vertical at SpaceX's SLC-4E Vandenberg launch pad, June 2019. (SpaceX)

Spaceflight Now reports that SpaceX has scheduled Starlink’s West Coast launch debut no earlier than August 10th, a mission that will also mark the company’s first launch in almost six weeks.

SpaceX completed its latest Falcon 9 launch – and 20th launch of 2021 – on June 30th, successfully deploying dozens of customer small satellites and three Starlink spacecraft as part of its second dedicated Smallsat Program ‘Transporter’ mission. Since then, the United States’ Eastern Range has been eerily quiet – as if in the eye of the storm that is SpaceX’s 2021 launch manifest. While there has been no official word one way or another, it’s been speculated that the range entered a period of routine – if inconvenient – maintenance that can often last weeks and during which no launches are possible.

Scheduled to launch no earlier than July 30th, Boeing’s second attempt at an uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT-2) of its Starliner crew capsule will apparently punctuate the end of that maintenance period and a return to regular operations for SpaceX. In the meantime, Spaceflight Now’s sources suggest that the company has been making the most of its downtime.

In the last two months, SpaceX has shipped two record-breaking Falcon 9 boosters – collectively responsible for 19 orbital-class launches in the last three years – from Florida to its Vandenberg Air/Space Force Base (VAFB), California launch facilities. Drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) wrapped up an 8000 kilometer (~5000 mi) journey from its Florida home to California’s Port of Long Beach, while brand new drone ship A Shortfall of Gravitas (ASOG) arrived at Port Canaveral to take OCISLY’s place after months of assembly.

All are part of an effort to prepare for an even busier second half of 2021. According to Spaceflight Now, H2 will begin no earlier than August 10th for SpaceX with Starlink’s first dedicated polar launch (known as “Starlink 2-1”) and the first Falcon 9 mission out of Vandenberg in nine months. Combined, Falcon 9 boosters B1049 and B1051 and drone ship OCISLY should be more than capable of pushing SpaceX’s SLC-4E pad to its limits, maxing out around one launch per month for the foreseeable future.

Last month, SpaceX FCC filings also revealed plans for a number of new dedicated Starlink launches from its Cape Canaveral LC-40 pad – unexceptional if it weren’t for the fact that details in the documents implied that those upcoming missions will also be targeting polar orbits. In other words, after successfully launching more than 1600 operational Starlink satellites into mid-inclination equatorial orbits, SpaceX now appears to be laser-focused on building out the constellation’s polar ‘shell.’

Comprised of ~1100 satellites, that polar shell will ultimately give Starlink the ability to deliver internet to aircraft and ships virtually anywhere on Earth – two established connectivity markets that are ripe for disruption. To do so, however, most or all polar Starlink satellites will need optical interlinks – lasers that allow spacecraft to route communications in space and serve customers beyond the reach of land-based ground stations. Thus far, excluding two early 2018 prototypes, SpaceX has launched 13 Starlink satellites with prototype laser links.

SpaceX’s first ten space laser Starlink prototypes. (SpaceX)

CEO Elon Musk has stated that Starlink V2 satellites are set to debut in 2022 and will all have optical interlinks. However, the upcoming “Starlink 2-1” mission’s internal name does raise the question of whether it’s referring to the start of a new constellation ‘shell,’ the first batch of V2 satellites, or both. SpaceX job postings have also hinted at “Starlink V1.5” satellites, which could potentially be as simple as existing V1 satellites outfitted with laser links.

Ultimately, only time, SpaceX, or Elon Musk will tell and the company’s first dedicated Starlink launch is scheduled as few as two weeks from now.

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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