MT LAUREL, NJ – SpaceX launched the newest GPS satellite from the United States Air Force on December 23 in a Falcon 9 rocket, completing the company's 21st and last launch.
The rocket took off at 8:51 am in Cape Canaveral, Fla., After technical and weather-related delays that took the mission to five days. Its payload, Lockheed Martin's first GPS 3 satellite, broke off the rocket an hour and 59 minutes later.
The launch was a double milestone for SpaceX, setting a new record from last year's 18 releases, and completing the company's first defense mission competing for the Air Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.
SpaceX's record annual performance, which included the first release of a Falcon Heavy, was still the initial forecast for 30 to 40 of the company's releases. SpaceX boosted its launch rate quickly, above eight missions in 2016 and six missions in 2015 (Falcon 9 failures in both years limited launch rates).
SpaceX has launched other national security missions, such as the National Reconnaissance Office's NROL-76 satellite, and the X-37B unmanned spaceplane, both in 2017. The Air Force has chosen SpaceX to launch four more GPS satellites 3, of the current mission.
SpaceX did not regain the first stage of Falcon 9, having dedicated the fuel that would have been used to land the booster rather than the mission requirements to put the 4,400-kilogram satellite into a highly elliptical orbit. From there, the satellite will circulate in a medium Earth orbit, joining the US GPS constellation of 31 older satellites, providing positioning, navigation and time services to more than four billion users.
The new GPS 3 satellite replaces an old GPS 2R probe launched in 1997.
Lockheed Martin is building the first 10 GPS 3 satellites through contracts awarded in 2008 and 2016. In September, the Air Force selected Lockheed Martin to build an additional 22 GPS 3 satellites after reopening the program to competition amid delays in schedule and cost overruns.
The GPS 3 program is more than four years from its original schedule for a first launch.
Lockheed Martin said it addressed the problems of the first satellites but the company was aided in gaining additional GPS 3 due to the absence of Boeing and Northrop Grumman – two expected candidates who ultimately chose not to compete in the Air Force competition. .
The GPS 3 transmits a stronger signal to counter the electronic lock. It will be the first GPS satellite to broadcast four civil signals and the first to launch and control the checkout with the new Air Force ground control system: OCX Block 0.
As it is the first of its kind, the check-out of the new satellite can take six to nine months. The orbital check-out will begin about 10 days after launch. After being declared operational, about six to nine months of testing are planned to integrate the new satellite into the constellation.
Lockheed Martin has manufactured 18 of the 31 GPS satellites currently in operation. It is estimated that the first GPS 3 vehicle costs $ 529 million. It was nicknamed "Vespucci" after the Italian explorer.
The GPS 3 satellites that Lockheed Martin is building are designed to operate for at least 15 years. The Air Force plans to launch the second GPS 3 satellite next year.
SpaceNews writer Sandra Erwin contributed to this article.