First view of OSIRIS-REx returning with asteroid sample


Is it a spacecraft? An asteroid? Well, both. This small central speck is the first image of a spacecraft on its way home, carrying with it a sample from an asteroid hundreds-of-millions, if-not-billions-of-years old. The spacecraft is NASA’s OSIRIS-REx, the asteroid is Bennu.

On Sunday 24 September, the mission will drop its rocky sample off to fall through Earth’s atmosphere and land safely back home, before it continues on to study the once rather scary asteroid Apophis.

Spotted on 16 September by ESA’s Optical Ground Station (OGS) telescope in Tenerife, OSIRIS-REx was 4.66 million km from Earth. This image is a combination of 90 individual images, each 36-second exposures. They have been combined in a way that takes into account the motion of the spacecraft, which is not travelling in a straight line, causing the seemingly stretched background stars to curve and warp.

ESA’s 1-metres OGS telescope was originally built to observe space debris in orbit and test laser communication technologies, but since broadened its horizons to also conduct surveys and follow-up observations of near-Earth asteroids and make night-time astronomy observations and has even discovered dozens of minor planets.

For this observation, ESA’s Near-Earth Object Coordination Centre (NEOCC) took over the reins, directing it at the returning asteroid explorer. The NEOCC, part of the Agency’s Planetary Defence Office, is a little like Europe’s asteroid sorting hat; the centre and its experts are scanning the skies for risky space rocks, computing their orbits and calculating their risk of impact.

From our small but mighty Space Safety telescope, we say ‘Hello, OSIRIS-REx, good luck NASA and welcome safely to Earth, asteroid Bennu!’.

(Read all about ESA’s Hera mission that launches next year to examine the first test of asteroid deflection, the first mission to rendezvous with a binary asteroid system.)

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Artemis II crew visits Bremen, as Germany signs the Artemis Accords

ESA and Airbus, in coordination with NASA, hosted an Artemis II media event at the Airbus facility in Bremen, Germany, on Friday, Sept. 15. In this event, the whole crew of Artemis II was present at the facility where Airbus assembles the Orion European Service Module (ESM). The ESM will provide life support and propulsion for the crew to fly to the Moon and back for the upcoming Artemis II mission and beyond. The first ESM mission was the Artemis I mission last year.

Part of the event was an open session with Artemis II astronauts Reid Wiseman, Victor Glover, Christina Koch, and Jeremy Hansen.  In the question-and-answer session with the media, the crew talked about their experience visiting the engineers and facilities in Bremen during the last few days.

The crew remarked that they were amused to learn that the European crew calls Orion the “Penthouse” that will sit on top of the ESM. They also talked about their ongoing training, as, for example, Koch and Hansen recently performed some geology training in Canada as part of an evaluation of training activities for Artemis II and future lunar missions.

The Crew of Artemis II in the clean room in Bremen. (Credit: Airbus Defense&Space)

During the trip, the crew also visited the clean room, where ESM-3 is currently being worked on. Access to the clean room was limited because the main engine for the spacecraft is currently in integration.  The Orion main engine is an AJ-10 engine previously flown on Space Shuttle missions. 

One day before the event, it was also confirmed that Germany would join the Artemis Accords, which is a non-binding agreement between the United States and partner nations, to help the effort to bring humans back to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond.  Director General of the German Space Agency Walther Pelzer traveled to Washington to sign the accords together with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson on Sept. 14.

A video of the signing ceremony was also played at the event in Bremen, with messages from Nelson, Pelzer, and ESA astronauts Alexander Gerst and Matthias Maurer.

Howard Hu, Orion Program Manager. (Credit: NASA)

NSF was invited to conduct interviews with several key figures of the Orion and ESM programs, including Howard Hu, Manager of the Orion program at NASA, Philippe Berthe, Project Coordination Manager of Orion ESM at ESA, and Dario Saia, European Service Module Programme Manager at Thales Alenia Space.

Regarding the recap and analysis of the Artemis I mission, Hu said: “Wow! That’s the one-word summary! It was such a fantastic moment when it landed and touched down on December 11th. A combination of many years of hard work by a lot of people!”

“To see it crystalize in a safe and successful landing, where all of the parachutes deployed accomplishes something historic that has not been done in over 50 years!” 

Artemis I was the first flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) and the ESM and the first flight of Orion with SLS. All components were tested in an uncrewed configuration for 25 days, flying from Earth to a distant retrograde orbit of the Moon and then returning. The mission splashed down on December 11 in the Pacific Ocean and was considered very successful. 

Focusing on the ESM, the overperformance of the service module, Hu noted: “It’s one flight. It’s one flight data set. We will learn more about that with future flight data sets when we have a crew on board.”

“We always want more margins and more capabilities because the missions that are coming up will be even more challenging, so the need for power might be much greater than expected. But having a spacecraft with more significant margins makes you very happy!”

With respect to the potential to remove some margins on future flights, Hu said: “Of course, changing a spacecraft and the hardware would be a huge step because we already have the hardware built, and of course, you want to stabilize the design. I want to spend less money here and more money on other things, so if we can stabilize hardware and design, that saves us money.”

Philippe Berthe. Project Coordination Manager of Orion ESM at ESA. (Credit: ESA)

Berthe said regarding the performance of flight one: “We learned that we can work together as a team, not only during development but also during the execution of the mission. We have a strongly mixed team of European and NASA engineers.”

“The teams of NASA and ESA worked exceptionally well together. We also learned that the module performed remarkably well from a technical standpoint. We exceeded the expected performance from the module and executed the four maneuvers we were supposed to run around the Moon.”

“We also performed well in terms of power generation and thermal control,” Berthe added. “We are working on very few issues. One issue concerns the PCDU (Power Control and Distribution Unit), which we have worked on since the mission, and we think we have found the root cause, and now we are at the level of determining the corrective measures we must take.”

Berthe also added that the main reason that ESA could take so many pictures was that the ESM was operating on so much less power than expected. ESA could dedicate almost one solar panel to images, as it was no longer needed for the 2primary functions of the capsule.

Saia also provided his overview of ESM-1 performance on Artemis I: “I think we learned a lot about performance. We learned a lot about the critical components. We collected and gathered a lot of data, confirming our design worked!”

“But of course, that is not enough. This was only the first mission. Next time, it will be with a crew, so the next time, we might get demands and questions from the crew. We need to be ready and fast for that and focus on the mission, mainly the humans involved. It’s a different aspect we will have to consider.”

Saia also underlined that previous missions, such as the involvement of Thales Alenia Space in constructing the International Space Station (ISS) have helped Thales build all the knowledge needed to partner with a mission like Artemis.

The ESM clean room. (Credit: Adrian Beil for NSF)

Currently, the ESMs are in production through the module for the Artemis VI mission. ESM-3 is currently in the clean room, in the final steps of AJ-10 integration before the delivery to Kennedy Space Center in a few months, while ESM-4, ESM-5, and ESM-6 are already in different steps of the integration and assembly process.

Regarding the pre-production of the next module from Thales Alenia Space, Saia said: “We expect to have an award (for ESM-7 and beyond) very soon. We delivered [the primary structure for] ESM-4 in July 2022, ESM-5 in December 2022, and ESM-6 this year, so in one year, we have delivered three primary structures and are pretty fast.”

Following assembly at a Thales facility in Italy, the ESM primary structure is transported to Airbus Bremen to be fully assembled and integrated into a working spacecraft module prior to shipment from Germany to its Florida launch site.

Hu added about the contract extension: “From a NASA perspective, we expect the partnership to continue beyond ESM-6.”  Regarding recent rumors about the SLS maybe using one more Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) instead of the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS), Hu would not comment.

The first three Artemis missions will use the initial version of SLS that employs ICPS as its second stage.  EUS is a larger, purpose-built upper stage being developed for SLS by the end of the decade, which will improve mission availability, flexibility, and enable an additional 10 metric tons of payload to be carried with Orion to the Moon.

Regarding the compatibility of the ESM to be used on either ICPS or EUS, he said: “They will be a little different in terms of loads. The EUS has a bit of a different load characteristic than the ICPS.  There would be minor differences in the interface, but we already know what they are and could implement one or the other.”

Liftoff, of the first SLS rocket in 2022. (Credit: Michael Baylor for NSF)

Berthe added, “We are operating by the loads NASA requires. NASA is the master of the requirements. The loads are designed for the ICPS since we are flying the first three ESMs with the ICPS. For flight four, the design would change to the loads of the EUS, but there is no significant modification between the two.”

Saia said that from the perspective of TAS, they have the capability to make changes to the primary structure if necessary. “At the moment, we are not considering changes. Up to ESM-6, we will have no significant design change. We can adapt the design and are willing to do so if needed. The main goal is to adapt as we do it and change if we need it.”

Regarding the process leading up to the Artemis II mission planned for late 2024, Hu confirmed that every component is already integrated into the Orion spaceship. Next will be stacking the Crew Module and ESM and performing integrated testing on the mated system. After that, the capsule will be handed over to the ground team, fueling and loading the Orion module, stacking the launch abort system, and integrating it into the SLS rocket.

For Artemis III, he confirms that the teams are working like clockwork. The ESM is expected in Florida in a few months, and work is ongoing at the crew module. So far, no delays are expected on the Orion side of the stack. 

Delivery of the ESM-6 primary structure to Bremen. (Source: Airbus Defense&Space)

He also added the following regarding the ability of the Orion to support different mission profiles should there be delays to the lunar lander or spacesuits in development for Artemis III: “Certainly, Orion has a lot of flexibility. We can fly a lot of different missions.”

“We are dependent on lander and suits. Those are two different programs, two different providers, and they have their schedules. We all have to come together to accomplish this mission. We all have to drive as quickly and safely as possible to get to this point, but these two programs are key.”

With respect to the Orion program’s readiness to support Artemis III, Hu said: “We know what our timeline is. We already have the hardware.”

“From our perspective, we have a very defined flow that allows us to produce the spacecraft. The same thing has to happen for the other two key components.”

For Artemis III, NASA has selected SpaceX to develop a lander based on the Starship infrastructure and Axiom Space to build a spacesuit for extravehicular activities, such as the first steps on the Moon. Both essential items face significant milestones before being ready for the Artemis III mission, currently planned for late 2025.

One hardware change down the line for the ESM will be moving from Orbital Maneuvering System engines leftover from the Space Shuttle program to new AJ-10s, being developed to very similar specifications for Orion. This is scheduled to happen after Artemis VI.

Regarding the status of developing the successor, Berthe said: “The development is underway. We are on schedule for delivery of the first new engine for ESM-7. Of course, it is also part of the contract extension from ESM-7 to ESM-9. One criterion is the same form, fit, and function as previous engines. It is a matter of schedule, but we are on track!”

VR rendering of Argonaut on the lunar surface. (Credit: ESA)

NSF also asked Phlippe Berthe about the potential of getting European astronauts to the Moon. Currently, ESA will get three slots in the Moon orbit, but an agreement for travel to the surface of the Moon has yet to be present. Berthe said about this: “This is the next step of the negotiations, I would say.  We need to bring something new to barter, to provide added contributions to NASA to justify having an Astronaut on the surface.”

“This is mainly Argonaut. Argonaut will be a lunar lander launched by Ariane 6, which will deliver 1 to 1.5 tons of hardware to the surface of the Moon. We are discussing with NASA how we could exchange a series of logistics missions to the surface of the Moon, with a European on the surface of the Moon.”

(Lead image: Artemis II crew talking in Bremen. Credit: Airbus Defense&Space)

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Firefoxes and whale spouts light up Earth’s shield


Did you know, the Northern lights or Aurora Borealis are created when the mythical Finnish ‘Firefox’ runs so quickly across the snow that its tail causes sparks to fly into the night sky? At least, that’s one of the stories that has been told in Finland about this beautiful phenomenon. Another that we love comes from the Sámi people of Finnish Lapland (among others), who describe them as plumes of water ejected by whales.

What do they look like, to you?

Today’s scientific explanation for the origin of the Aurora wasn’t thought up until the 20th Century, by the Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland. Charged particles, electrons and protons, are constantly emitted by the Sun, making up the solar wind. This wind slams into Earth’s ionosphere – sometimes sped up to vast speeds by solar storms – and the charged particles are deflected towards the poles by the magnetosphere.

Molecules in our atmosphere then absorb energy from these charged particles from the Sun, and re-release it in their own unique set of colours. Oxygen produces green, but at high altitudes can create red, nitrogen creates blues, and colours can overlap creating purple. Waves, twists and streams are caused by variations in Earth’s magnetic fields.

This striking video shows the Aurora over Kiruna, the northernmost city in Sweden. It’s composed of images taken by the Kiruna all-sky camera every minute for about ten hours over 18-19 September 2023.

The all-sky auroral camera is operated by the Kiruna Atmospheric and Geophysical Observatory (KAGO) within the Swedish Institute of Space Physics (IRF), and data from here is provided as part of ESA’s network of space weather services within the Agency’s Space Safety Programme.

Recently, a sequence of multiple coronal mass ejections – large, sudden ejections of plasma and magnetic field from the Sun – struck Earth and we are still recovering from the passage of the last one. The fastest was travelling at around 700 km/s, considered a small event.

The Sun is getting close to its time of peak solar activity – predicted for 2024/2025 – in its current 11-year cycle, Solar Cycle 25. Solar storms are causing an increase in geomagnetic activity; temporary disturbances in Earth’s magnetosphere, which has led to increased light shows at Earth’s poles.

A modern interpretation of the meaning of the Aurora could focus on Earth’s remarkable way of protecting life, so far, the only life we know of in the Universe. The colours of the Aurora reveal the normally invisible complex molecular soup in just the right composition for life to thrive. Those molecules form our atmosphere, a thin shield against electromagnetic radiation and even the small asteroids that constantly bombard our home.

The shapes of the Aurora tell the story of the usually invisible protective magnetic field, holding back dangerous elements from reaching us on the ground, like charged particles from the Sun. It also pulls every compass needle north, helping us navigate stormy seas.

While humans on Earth are protected by Earth’s magnetic field, space weather can have an extreme and disruptive impact on satellites in orbit and infrastructure on Earth, and ultimately our society. For this reason, ESA’s Space Weather Service Network continues to monitor our star and the conditions around Earth, to provide information to keep our systems safe.

In 2030, ESA will launch the first-of-its-kind Vigil mission to monitor the Sun from a unique vantage point. Studying our star from the side, it will provide a stream of data that will warn of potentially hazardous regions before they roll into view from Earth.

Find out more about space weather and sign up for free updates from ESA’s Space Weather Service Network.

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Starlink Group 6-17 | Falcon 9 Block 5

Featured image credit: SpaceX
Lift Off Time

September 16, 2023 – 02:47 UTC
September 19, 2023 – 22:47 EDT

Mission Name

Starlink Group 6-17; a launch of v2 Mini Starlink satellites

Launch Provider
(What rocket company is launching it?)


(Who’s paying for this?)



Falcon 9 Block 5 booster B1060-17; 65.96-day turnaround

Launch Location

Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40), Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, USA

Payload mass

~17,600 kg (22 x ~800 kg, plus dispenser) (estimated)

Where are the satellites going?

530 km circular low-Earth orbit (LEO) at 43°; initial orbit 284 x 293 km at 43.00º

Will they be attempting to recover the first stage?


Where will the first stage land?

~643 km downrange on A Shortfall of Gravitas

Tug: Doug; Support: Doug

Will they be attempting to recover the fairings?

The fairing halves will be recovered from the water ~683 km downrange by Doug

Are these fairings new?

The fairings are likely flight-proven

How’s the weather looking?

The weather is currently 60% go for launch

This will be the:

– 257th Falcon 9 launch
– 189th Falcon 9 flight with a flight-proven booster
– 197th re-flight of a booster
– 63rd re-flight of a booster in 2023
– 227th booster landing
– 153rd consecutive landing (a record)
– 67th launch for SpaceX in 2023
– 144th SpaceX launch from 
– 153rd orbital launch attempt of 2023

Where to watch

Official Livestream

What’s This All Mean?

SpaceX’s Starlink Group 6-17 mission will launch 22 Starlink v2 Mini satellites atop a Falcon 9 rocket. The Falcon 9 will lift off from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40), at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, in Florida, United States. Starlink Group 6-17 will mark the 106th operational Starlink mission, boosting the total number of Starlink satellites launched to 5,135, of which ~4,787 will still be in orbit around the Earth once launched.

What Is Starlink?

Starlink is SpaceX’s internet communication satellite constellation. The low-Earth orbit constellation delivers fast, low-latency internet service to locations where ground-based internet is unreliable, unavailable, or expensive. The first phase of the constellation consists of five orbital shells.

Starlink is currently available in certain regions, allowing anyone in approved regions to order or preorder. After 28 launches SpaceX achieved near-global coverage, but version 1 of the constellation will not be complete until all five shells are filled. Once Starlink generations 1 and 2 are complete, the venture is expected to profit $30-50 billion annually. This profit will largely finance SpaceX’s ambitious Starship program, as well as Mars Base Alpha.

A stack of 60 Starlink v1.0 satellites prior to be encapsulated into Falcon 9’s payload fairing. (Credit: SpaceX)

What Is The Starlink Satellite?

Each Starlink v1.5 satellite has a compact design and a mass of 307 kg. SpaceX developed a flat-panel design, allowing them to fit as many satellites as possible into the Falcon 9’s 5.2-meter wide payload fairing. Due to this flat design, SpaceX is able to fit up to 60 Starlink satellites and the payload dispenser into the second stage, while still being able to recover the first stage. This is near the recoverable payload capacity of the Falcon 9 to LEO, around 16 tonnes. 

As small as each Starlink satellite is, each one is packed with high-tech communication and cost-saving technology. Each Starlink satellite is equipped with four phased array antennas, for high bandwidth and low-latency communication, and two parabolic antennas. The satellites also include a star tracker, which provides the satellite with attitude data, ensuring precision in broadband communication. 

Each Starlink v1.5 satellite is also equipped with an inter-satellite laser communication system. This allows each satellite to communicate directly with other satellites, not having to go through ground stations. This reduces the number of ground stations needed, allowing coverage of the entire Earth’s surface, including the poles.

The Starlink satellites are also equipped with an autonomous collision avoidance system, which utilizes the US Department of Defense (DOD) debris tracking database to autonomously avoid collisions with other spacecraft and space junk. 

To decrease costs, each satellite has a single solar panel, which simplifies the manufacturing process. To further cut costs, Starlink’s propulsion system, an ion thruster, uses krypton as fuel, instead of xenon. While the specific impulse (ISP) of krypton is significantly lower than xenon’s, it is far cheaper, which further decreases the satellite’s manufacturing cost.

Each Starlink satellite is equipped with the first Hall-effect krypton-powered ion thruster. This thruster is used for both ensuring the correct orbital position, as well as for orbit raising and orbit lowering. At the end of the satellite’s life, this thruster is used to deorbit the satellite.

Starlink v2 And v2 Mini

SpaceX’s Starlink v2 satellites are larger, more powerful satellites meant to be launched on SpaceX’s Starship launch vehicle. While little is known about these satellites thus far, it is known that they mass roughly 1,200 kg and feature a twin-solar array design, to increase power delivered to the satellite. On top of this, according to SpaceX CEO and CTO Elon Musk, the satellites will have an order of magnitude more bandwidth, higher speeds, and be roughly 10x better in every way.

In the future, Starlink v2 satellites will act as cell towers, providing worldwide cell phone coverage to T-Mobile customers. Musk has stated that each of these satellites will have roughly 2-4 Mb/s of bandwidth per cell phone zone, which will allow for tens of thousands of SMS text messages per second or many users placing phone calls. While this technology is primarily meant for contacting emergency services worldwide (similar to Apple’s connect to satellite feature on the iPhone 14 series), it will also be able to be used for sending non-emergency-related messages.

Due to delays in the Starship launch vehicle, SpaceX is launching Starlink v2 “Mini” satellites that will launch on the Falcon 9 rocket. These satellites have a more powerful phased array antenna and utilize the E-band for backhaul. This allows each satellite to provide 4x more capacity than Starlink v1.0 and v1.5.

The Starlink v2 Mini satellites are equipped with a new argon Hall thruster for on-orbit maneuvering. These generate 2.4 times as much thrust as the thrusters on v1.5 satellites and have 1.5 times the specific impulse. Starlink v2 Mini satellites are the first satellites to use an argon thruster on-orbit.

21 Starlink v2 Mini satellites prepared for encapsulation in Falcon 9’s fairing (Credit: SpaceX)

What Is The Starlink Satellite Constellation?

A satellite constellation is a group of satellites that work in conjunction for a common purpose. SpaceX’s Starlink constellation consists of two generations: the first (which is largely complete) is filled with Starlink v1/1.5 satellites and the second is to be filled with Starlink v2 and v2 Mini satellites.

Starlink generation one consists of five orbital shells and has a total of 4,408 satellite slots. These satellites will entirely be launched on Falcon 9, and it is expected for these launches to finish in 2023.

Generation two consists of 29,988 satellites–this is roughly 20 times more satellites than were ever launched before the start of Starlink in 2019. These satellites will primarily be launched by Starship; however, as previously mentioned, Falcon 9 will launch some of these satellites while Starship is not operational.

Due to the vast number of Starlink satellites, many astronomers are concerned about their effect on the night sky. However, SpaceX is working with the astronomy community and implementing changes to the satellites to make them harder to see from the ground and less obtrusive to the night sky. SpaceX has changed how the satellites raise their orbits and, starting on Starlink v1.0 L9, added a sunshade to reduce light reflectivity. These changes have already significantly decreased the effect of Starlink on the night sky.

Starlink Phase 1 Orbital Shells:

Inclination (°)Orbital Altitude (km)Number of SatellitesShell 153.05501,584Shell 270.0570720Shell 397.6560348Shell 453.25401,584Shell 597.6560172Generation 1 Orbital Shells

Shell 1

The first orbital shell of Starlink satellites consists of 1,584 satellites in a 53.0° 550 km low-Earth orbit. Shell 1 consists of 72 orbital planes, with 22 satellites in each plane. This shell is currently near complete, with occasional satellites being replaced. The first shell provides coverage between roughly 52° and -52° latitude (~80% of the Earth’s surface), and will not feature laser links until replaced.

Shell 2

Starlink’s second shell will host 720 satellites in a 70° 570 km orbit. These satellites will significantly increase the coverage area, which will make the Starlink constellation cover around 94% of the globe. SpaceX will put 20 satellites in each of the 36 planes in the third shell. This shell is currently being filled, along with Shell 4.

Shell 3

Shell 3 will consist of 348 satellites in a 97.6° 560 km orbit. SpaceX deployed 10 laser link test satellites into this orbit on its Transporter-1 mission to test satellites in a polar orbit. SpaceX launched an additional three satellites to this shell on the Transporter-2 mission. On April 6, 2021, Gwynne Shotwell said that SpaceX will conduct regular polar Starlink launches in the summer, but this shell is now the lowest priority and is expected to be the last filled. All satellites that will be deployed into this orbit will have inter-satellite laser link communication. Shell 3 will have six orbital planes with 58 satellites in each plane.

Shell 4

The fourth shell will consist of 1,584 satellites in a 540 km 53.2° LEO. This updated orbital configuration will slightly increase coverage area and will drastically increase the bandwidth of the constellation. This shell will also consist of 72 orbital planes with 22 satellites in each plane. This shell is currently being filled alongside Shell 2.

Shell 5

The final shell of Phase 1 of Starlink will host 172 satellites in another 97.6° 560 km low-Earth polar orbit. Shell 5 will also consist purely of satellites with laser communication links; however, unlike Shell 3, it will consist of four orbital planes with 43 satellites in each plane.

However, it is unclear if this shell will still be filled; previous group 5 launches have gone to a 43° orbit.

Starlink Generation 2 Orbital Shells:

The Starlink gen 2 constellation consists of nine orbital shells. It is currently unclear how these shells will be named.

Inclination (°)Altitude (km)Orbital PlanesSatellites per PlaneNumber Of Satellites53.0340481105,28046.0345481105,28038.0350481105,28096.9360301203,60053.0525281203,36043.0530281203,36033.0535281203,360148.06041212144115.76141818324Generation 2 Orbital Shells

SpaceX has until March of 2024 to complete half of Generation 1 and must fully complete Generation 1 by March of 2027.

What Is Falcon 9 Block 5?

The Falcon 9 Block 5 is SpaceX’s partially reusable two-stage medium-lift launch vehicle. The vehicle consists of a reusable first stage, an expendable second stage, and, when in payload configuration, a pair of reusable fairing halves.

First Stage

The Falcon 9 first stage contains nine Merlin 1D+ sea-level engines. Each engine uses an open gas generator cycle and runs on RP-1 and liquid oxygen (LOx). Each engine produces 845 kN of thrust at sea level, with a specific impulse (ISP) of 285 seconds, and 934 kN in a vacuum with an ISP of 313 seconds. Due to the powerful nature of the engine, and the large amount of them, the Falcon 9 first stage is able to lose an engine right off the pad, or up to two later in the flight, and be able to successfully place the payload into orbit.

The Merlin engines are ignited by triethylaluminum and triethylborane (TEA-TEB), which instantly burst into flames when mixed in the presence of oxygen. During static fire and launch the TEA-TEB is provided by the ground service equipment. However, as the Falcon 9 first stage is able to propulsively land, three of the Merlin engines (E1, E5, and E9) contain TEA-TEB canisters to relight for the boost back, reentry, and landing burns.

Second Stage

The Falcon 9 second stage is the only expendable part of the Falcon 9. It contains a singular MVacD engine that produces 992 kN of thrust and an ISP of 348 seconds. The second stage is capable of doing several burns, allowing the Falcon 9 to put payloads in several different orbits.

SpaceX is currently flying two different versions of the MVacD engine’s nozzle. The standard nozzle design is used on high-performance missions. The other nozzle is a significantly shorter version of the standard, decreasing both performance and material usage; with this nozzle, the MVacD engine produces 10% less thrust in space. This nozzle is only used on lower-performance missions, as it decreases the amount of material needed by 75%. This means that SpaceX can launch over three times as many missions with the same amount of Niobium as with the longer design.

For missions with many burns and/or long coasts between burns, the second stage is able to be equipped with a mission extension package. When the second stage has this package it has a grey strip, which helps keep the RP-1 warm, an increased number of composite-overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) for pressurization control, and additional TEA-TEB.

Falcon 9 Block 5 launching on the Starlink V1.0 L27 mission (Credit: SpaceX)

Falcon 9 Booster

The booster supporting the Starlink Group 6-17 is B1060-17; as the name implies, the booster has supported 16 previous missions. Following its landing, its designation will change to B1060-18.

B1060’s missionsLaunch Date (UTC)Turn Around Time (Days)GPS III SV03June 30, 2020 20:10N/AStarlink V1.0 L11September 3, 2020 12:4664.69Starlink V1.0 L14October 24, 2020 15:3151.11Türksat-5AJanuary 8, 2021 02:1575.45Starlink V1.0 L18February 4, 2021 06:1927.17Starlink V1.0 L22March 24, 2021 08:2848.09Starlink V1.0 L24April 29, 2021 03:4438.50Transporter-2June 30, 2021 19:3162.66Starlink Group 4-3December 2, 2021 23:12155.15Starlink Group 4-6January 19, 2022 02:0247.22Starlink Group 4-9March 3, 2022 14:3543.52Starlink Group 4-14April 21, 2022 17:5149.14Starlink Group 4-19June 17, 2022 16:0956.93Galaxy 33 & 34October 8, 2022 23:05113.29Transporter-6January 3, 2023 14:5586.66Starlink Group 5-15July 16, 2023 03:50193.54

Following stage separation, the Falcon 9 will conduct two burns. These burns aim to softly touch down the booster on SpaceX’s autonomous spaceport drone ship A Shortfall of Gravitas.

Falcon 9 landing on Of Course I Still Love You after launching Bob and Doug (Credit: SpaceX)

Falcon 9 Fairings

The Falcon 9’s fairing consists of two dissimilar reusable halves. The first half (the half that faces away from the transport erector) is called the active half, and houses the pneumatics for the separation system. The other fairing half is called the passive half. As the name implies, this half plays a purely passive role in the fairing separation process, as it relies on the pneumatics from the active half.

Both fairing halves are equipped with cold gas thrusters and a parafoil which are used to softly touch down the fairing half in the ocean. SpaceX used to attempt to catch the fairing halves, however, at the end of 2020 this program was canceled due to safety risks and a low success rate. On Starlink Group 6-17, SpaceX will attempt to recover the fairing halves from the water with its recovery vessel Doug.

In 2021, SpaceX started flying a new version of the Falcon 9 fairing. The new “upgraded” version has vents only at the top of each fairing half, by the gap between the halves, whereas the old version had vents placed spread equidistantly around the base of the fairing. Moving the vents decreases the chance of water getting into the fairing, making the chance of a successful scoop significantly higher.

An active Falcon 9 fairing half (Credit: Greg Scott)

Falcon 9 passive fairing half (Credit: Greg Scott)

Half of the fairing being taken off Go. Navigator. (Credit: Lupi)

A passive fairing half being unloaded from Shelia Bordelon after the Starlink V1.0 L22 mission (Credit: Kyle M)

Starlink Group 6-17 Countdown

All times are approximate

HR/MIN/SECEVENT00:38:00SpaceX Launch Director verifies go for propellant load00:35:00RP-1 (rocket-grade kerosene) loading underway00:35:001st stage LOX (liquid oxygen) loading underway00:16:002nd stage LOX loading underway00:07:00Falcon 9 begins engine chill prior to launch00:01:00Command flight computer to begin final prelaunch checks00:01:00Propellant tank pressurization to flight pressure begins00:00:45SpaceX Launch Director verifies go for launch00:00:03Engine controller commands engine ignition sequence to start00:00:00Falcon 9 liftoff

Starlink Group 6-17 Launch, Landing, and Deployment

All Times are Approximate

HR/MIN/SECEVENT00:01:12Max Q (Moment of peak mechanical stress on the rocket)00:02:261st stage main engine cutoff (MECO)00:02:291st and 2nd stages separate00:02:362nd stage engine starts (SES-1)00:03:03Fairing deployment00:06:101st stage entry burn begins00:06:321st stage entry burn ends00:08:061st stage landing burn begins00:08:281st stage landing00:08:392nd stage engine cutoff (SECO-1)00:53:312nd stage engine starts (SES-2)00:53:312nd stage engine cutoff (SECO-2)01:02:25Starlink satellites deploy

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Blue Origin preparing for New Glenn testing at LC-36 ahead of maiden flight

Over the past few months, Blue Origin has continued making progress towards the maiden launch of its orbital class rocket, New Glenn. The company has continued testing systems at Launch Complex 36 (LC-36), and recently submitted plans for a refurbishment facility near the Cape Canaveral Skid Strip, expanding Blue Origin’s already impressive spread of installations on the Space Coast.

On Sept.15, 2023, Blue Origin submitted documents for the refurbishment facility to the St. Johns Water Management District. The documents explain the facility’s purpose is to “provide a building and associated infrastructure for the refurbishment of launch vehicles, and reuse of existing large and small components for rocket launches”.

The project is planned to be built on Central Control Road and covers a total of 58.8 acres and includes the refurbishment facility, parking areas, stormwater retention areas, and a 20-acre area for future developments. What’s more, the facility is just a two-kilometer drive from LC-36. Once approved, this facility will play a major role in Blue Origin’s goal of making New Glenn another workhorse vehicle for the space industry, similar to SpaceX’s Falcon rockets.

A site plan of the proposed refurbishment facility planned along Central Control Rd. (Credit: Blue Origin/St. Johns Water Management District)

In August, Blue Origin released a picture showing the inside of its main production building at Exploration Park. This image, taken in mid-June, shows a vast amount of hardware on the production floor including first and second-stage tank sections, barrel sections, domes, engine/landing leg sections, and interstages. To add to this, Blue Origin also released a new video on the New Glenn section of its website which shows a New Glenn first-stage tank inside of the Tank Cleaning and Testing Facility, which sits next door to the main production building.

During a panel at the World Satellite Business Week, Blue Origin’s Jarrett Jones stated Blue Origin has four boosters in various stages of production, and testing is going well.

A New Glenn first stage tank section undergoing testing inside of the Tank Cleaning and Testing facility. (Credit: Max Evans for NSF)

See Also

New Glenn UpdatesBlue Origin Forum SectionL2 Blue Origin ResourcesClick here to Join L2

In addition to the production of New Glenn, Blue Origin has continued to prepare LC-36 to support the testing of the hardware currently being manufactured. In recent months, Blue Origin has conducted a number of tests with both the main transporter erector, which will be used to support a fully stacked New Glenn, as well as a smaller transporter erector, which appears to be used to test New Glenn’s second-stage on the launch pad. A second-stage simulator has already been observed on this transporter erector.

In these tests, Blue rolled the transporter erectors on top of a self-propelled modular transporter system from the hangar, up the ramp, and to the launch mount, which sits between the Vehicle Access Tower and Lightning Protection Tower — both of which stand at 574 feet tall. Once at the launch mount, the transporter erector mates with the launch mount and is raised to the vertical position.

While Blue Origin has been preparing to test New Glenn’s upper stages on the pad, they have also been preparing a new test site for first stage tanks to the east of the launch pad. This test site was first noted in planning documents in 2022 as “GS-1 Test Area”, with GS-1 standing for “Glenn Stage 1.” Imagery has shown that the site has been outfitted with stands to support testing of rocket stages, as well as a propellant lines running from the launch pad to the test stand, which is very similar to how the upper stage test stand is set up.

A satellite image taken on July 5th showing New Glenn’s transporter erector on the launch pad. The GS-1 test area can be seen near the bottom left. (Credit: Google Earth)

Another recent change has to do with Jarvis, a program run by Blue Origin to rapidly develop a reusable upper stage for New Glenn. The second Jarvis tank, which had been sitting on the second-stage test stand at LC-36, was recently removed and transported back to the tents where these tanks are produced.

In July, Blue Origin filed a patent application for the design of a fully reusable upper stage, similar to what Jarvis tanks appear to be testing. The patent application, which had been in work for two years, shows what work is being done in the hangars and tents at Blue Origin. The design shown is a seven-meter wide upper stage with an aerospike engine and an actively cooled heat shield. The document describes the aerospike as consisting of two BE-3U power packs with up to 30 individual combustion chambers.

As flight hardware nears testing, Blue Origin is continuing to ensure its readiness to support the various phases of testing associated with preparing a vehicle for flight. Inside the hangar are first and second stage simulators, with two faring halves potentially sitting inside the hangar as well.

New Glenn’s simulator rolling to LC-36 in 2021. (Credit: Blue Origin)

With simulators for all the components of a full stack in the hangar, Blue Origin could use these articles to familiarise teams with handling, assembling, and rolling out a fully stacked New Glenn before flight hardware is ready for integrated testing.

In early August, Blue Origin conducted a BE-3U test fire using Marshall Space Flight Center’s Test Stand 4670. The test was the first since Blue Origin upgraded the historic test stand to support both BE-3U and BE-4 engines, which will be used by New Glenn. In a video recently released by Blue Origin, both a BE-3U and a BE-4 can be seen on the stand at the same time.

(Lead image: The main production floor at Blue Origin’s Florida factory as of mid-June. Credit: Blue Origin)

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