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SpaceX preparing for Transporter 1 ride-share mission

SpaceX is in the midst of preparing for back-to-back Falcon 9 launches from its two Florida pads, a feat that will also require two drone ships for each rocket booster to land on.

Drone ship Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) is already on station off the coast of North Carolina for SpaceX’s first Starlink launch of 2021 and is accompanied by crew support ship GO Quest, as well as twin fairing recovery ships GO Ms Tree and GO Ms Chief a bit further downrange. The setup is extremely familiar – practically identical to 5-10 prior Starlink missions completed in 2020.

Drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY), however, departed Port Canaveral heading in almost the exact opposite direction as its sister ship – nearly straight south towards a region southwest of the main island of the Bahamas.

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Known as Transporter-1, the mission OCISLY is tasked with supporting is significant for several reasons. Transporter-1 will be SpaceX’s first dedicated rideshare launch under its circa 2019 “Smallsat Rideshare Program” and will likely carry anywhere from 50 to 100+ spacecraft to orbit. More specifically, the mission is headed to a nearly polar sun-synchronous orbit (SSO), technically making it SpaceX and the United States’ second East Coast polar launch in roughly half a century.

In a last-second change, SpaceX also received shockingly rapid FCC approval to add ten of its own Starlink satellites to the commercial rideshare. If successful, Transporter-1 will thus also mark SpaceX’s first polar launch of operational Starlink satellites. Of the first phase of SpaceX’s ~4400-satellite Starlink constellation, some 520 are expected to be sent to strictly polar orbits

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Notably, with drone ship OCISLY and support ship GO Searcher’s recent departure for Transporter-1, SpaceX is in the unique position of having deployed almost the entirety of its substantial rocket recovery fleet. Only GO Navigator (effectively the twin of GO Searcher) is currently in port and even that ship was out at sea supporting the first Cargo Dragon 2 recovery on January 17th. Altogether, six of SpaceX’s seven recovery ships are currently hard at work supporting two separate Falcon 9 launches – a rare but probably increasingly common sight as SpaceX works to complete as many as 48 launches in 2021.

Starlink-16 is scheduled to launch no earlier than 8:23 am EST (13:23 UTC), Tuesday, January 19th and will be broadcast live by SpaceX, as usual. Transporter-1 will follow as few as ~49 hours later, launching NET 9:24 am EST (14:24 UTC) on Thursday, January 21st.

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