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SpaceX launches its first mission for the U.S. Space Force

A Falcon 9 rocket blasts off Tuesday from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: SpaceX

A new GPS satellite rocketed into orbit from Cape Canaveral on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher Tuesday on the way to replace one of the more than 30 other spacecraft helping guide everything from military munitions to motorists.

The launch was the first by SpaceXs for the U.S. Space Force, which took over most Air Force-run space programs after its establishment as a new military service in December. The third in a new line of upgraded Global Positioning System navigation satellites flew aboard the Falcon 9 rocket, adding fresh capabilities to the GPS network while replacing an aging spacecraft launched more than 20 years ago.

“The GPS 3 program continues to build on its successes by delivering advanced capabilities for the United States Space Force, and maintaining the ‘gold standard’ for position, navigation and timing.” said Col. Edward Byrne, Medium Earth Orbit Space Systems Division chief at the Space and Missile Systems Center.

The third GPS 3-series satellite, designated GPS 3 SV03, took off at 4:10:46 p.m. EDT (2010:46 GMT) from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Riding a 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket, the 9,505-pound (4,311-kilogram) spacecraft launched on a trajectory toward the northeast from Cape Canaveral, flying roughly parallel to the U.S. East Coast.

Nearly 90 minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9’s upper stage precisely released the GPS 3 SV03 satellite into an on-target transfer orbit ranging in altitude between around 250 miles (400 kilometers) and 12,550 miles (20,200 kilometers), with an inclination of 55 degrees to the equator.

The spot-on orbit puts the GPS 3 SV03 spacecraft in position to use its own propulsion system in the coming weeks to circularize its orbit at an altitude of 12,550 miles, where the satellite is set to enter the operational GPS constellation as early as August, military officials said.

The launch was originally scheduled for late April, but military officials delayed the flight two months to allow time for teams at a satellite operations center in Colorado to introduce and test new protocols to enable physical distancing between control consoles. Officials reduced the size of the crew inside the control center, and added partitions and procured personal protective equipment for satellite controllers to reduce risks amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to Byrne.

Manufactured by Lockheed Martin, the GPS 3 SV03 satellite is set to enter service in Plane E, Slot 4 of the GPS constellation. That position is currently occupied by a GPS satellite launched May 10, 2000, from Cape Canaveral on a Delta 2 rocket. Military officials did not say whether that satellite, which was originally designed for a 10-year mission, will be decommissioned or moved to another slot in the GPS network.

Lockheed Martin confirmed in a statement after Tuesday’s launch that the GPS 3 SV03 spacecraft was responding to commands from engineers at the company’s Launch and Checkout Center in Denver.

The GPS satellites are spread among six orbital planes, each with four primary spacecraft, plus spares. Byrne said Friday in a pre-launch teleconference with reporters that the GPS constellation currently consists of 31 satellites.

The GPS network provides positioning and timing services worldwide for military and civilian users, beaming signals relied upon by airliners, ATMs, drivers and smart bombs, among numerous other users.

“The Global Positioning System has become part of our critical national infrastructure, from transportation to financial markets to energy grids to the rideshare industry,” said Tonya Ladwig, acting vice president of Lockheed Martin’s navigation systems division. “It’s no longer a matter of did you use GPS today. It’s a matter of how many times did you actually use it.”

With an estimated 4 billion users, the GPS network reached full operational capability in 1995. The military has conducted a series of launches to replenish the GPS satellite fleet since then, using ULA’s Atlas and Delta rockets, and now SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

The GPS 3 satellites provide more accurate navigation signals and boasting longer design lifetimes of 15 years. The new GPS 3 satellites also broadcast e a new L1C civilian signal that is compatible with Europe’s Galileo network and Japan’s Quasi-Zenith Satellite System.

Military officials say the compatibility of GPS signals with satellite navigation networks operated by allies maximizes the accuracy of positioning and timing signals, helping ensure that users can fix their locations through more spacecraft in the sky at one time.

The U.S. military’s third GPS 3-series satellite, designated SV03, is prepared for encapsulation inside the payload fairing of its SpaceX-built Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: SpaceX

Like the previous line of Boeing-built GPS 2F satellites, all GPS 3-series spacecraft broadcast a dedicated L5 signal geared to support air navigation. The GPS 3 satellites also continue beaming an encrypted military-grade navigation signal known as M-code.

The M-code signal allows GPS satellites to broadcast higher-power, jam-resistant signals over specific regions, such as a military theater or battlefield. The capability provides U.S. and allied forces with more reliable navigation services, and could also allow the military to intentionally disrupt or jam civilian-grade GPS signals in a particular region, while the M-code signal remains unimpeded.

L3Harris Technologies builds the navigation payloads for the GPS 3 satellites.

The first two GPS 3-series satellites launched in December 2018 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and last August aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 booster. Both were declared fully operational earlier this year.

Ladwig said the GPS 3 SV04 and SV05 spacecraft are complete and in storage awaiting launch, and the next three satellites are fully assembled and undergoing environmental testing. SV09 and SV10 are currently being assembled at Lockheed Martin’s GPS satellite factory near Denver.

Lockheed Martin is on contract with the Defense Department to build 10 GPS 3 satellites — two of which have launched — and up to 22 upgraded GPS 3F-series satellites.

The Space Force has reserved the next three GPS 3-series satellite launches with SpaceX. An SMC spokesperson said the GPS SV04 mission is set for launch no earlier than Sept. 30, followed by SV05 in January 2021.

Tuesday’s launch also marked the first time military officials allowed SpaceX to reserve enough propellant on the rocket to land the Falcon 9’s first stage booster after a launch of a high-priority national security payload.

The Falcon 9 booster touched down on SpaceX’s drone ship “Just Read The Instructions” positioned around 400 miles (630 kilometers) northeast of Cape Canaveral in the Atlantic Ocean.

The first stage fired its engines to guide itself toward the drone ship after separation from the Falcon 9’s upper stage around two-and-a-half minutes into the mission. Titanium grid fins helped stabilize the rocket during descent, and booster landed on the power of its center engine around eight-and-a-half minutes after launch.

It was a crucial recovery for SpaceX, which aims to reuse the booster on a future flight. The first stage used Tuesday was a brand new booster.

Mission planners modified the Falcon 9 launch profile to accommodate the booster landing.

The launch profile adjustment to make landing of the Falcon 9 booster possible ended up saving “several million dollars” for the military from the original SpaceX launch contract value of $96.5 million, according to Walter Lauderdale, mission director for the GPS SV03 launch from the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center.

On SpaceX’s first launch of a GPS navigation satellite in December 2018, military officials required the launch company to devote all of the Falcon 9 rocket’s capacity to placing the spacecraft into orbit. That meant SpaceX could not install landing legs on the Falcon 9’s first stage or attempt recovery of the booster.

SpaceX lands, refurbishes and re-flies Falcon 9 first stages to reduce costs, and it is the only launch company that currently reuses rocket hardware.

SpaceX has recovered rockets on previous launches with military payloads, such as a Falcon Heavy mission last June, but those missions carried experimental technology demonstration and research satellites — not operational spacecraft like a GPS satellite.

On SpaceX’s first GPS launch in 2018, the military required the Falcon 9 rocket to place the spacecraft into an orbit with a higher perigee, or low point, of more than 740 miles, or about 1,200 kilometers. Teams also loaded extra fuel into the GPS spacecraft as an extra precaution.

It was the first high-priority national security payload to launch on a SpaceX rocket, and it was also the first satellite in a new design of GPS spacecraft.

“Simply put, there was insufficient performance given the mission trajectory and payload weight, combined with the uncertainties associated with this demanding mission,” Lauderdale said.

“Our evaluation of that mission’s performance, combined with additional work with SpaceX, reduced uncertainty in many areas,” Lauderdale said. “When we approached SpaceX to revise some spacecraft requirements for this mission … they responded with an opportunity to recover the booster in exchange for adding these requirements, as well as other considerations.”

Artist’s concept of a GPS 3 satellite in space. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Officials are now more comfortable with the performance of the Falcon 9 rocket and the new GPS 3-series satellite design. That allowed engineers to load less propellant into the third GPS 3 satellite.

Mission planners also changed the perigee of the spacecraft’s initial orbit after launch from around 740 miles to 250 miles, according to Byrne.

“All that required from us was to reassess our burn profile, so we made some slight modifications to that burn profile, but there’s been no mission impact associated with the booster recovery option,” Byrne said in a pre-launch conference call with reporters.

One change to the Falcon 9 rocket for the GPS SV03 mission was a gray band of thermal insulation on the launcher’s upper stage. The thermal layer was designed to help maintain kerosene fuel at proper temperatures during a nearly one-hour coast phase between the first and second burns of the upper stage’s Merlin engine, and then keep propellants stable during another coast phase of several hours before a third Merlin burn to deorbit the stage.

SpaceX has tested the thermal layer before, but it did not fly on the first GPS 3 launch in 2018. The company has experimented with long-duration coasts of the Falcon upper stage to gather data before the first dedicated launch of a national security payload on SpaceX’s triple-core Falcon Heavy rocket late this year.

Military engineers charged with overseeing the design and production of SpaceX rockets for national security missions assessed numerous configuration changes since the Falcon 9’s first launch of a GPS satellite in 2018.

“Since the GPS 3 launch in December 2018, we’ve worked with SpaceX to stay current on the configuration of the Falcon 9, evaluating 665 changes,” Lauderdale said. “This enabled us to maintain the vehicle technical baseline that is the foundation of our independent mission assurance.”

Space Force officials have not yet approved SpaceX to launch critical military satellites — a mission class known as National Security Space Launch payloads — using previously-flown boosters. SpaceX has re-launched Falcon boosters 37 times to date with a 100 percent success record.

Lauderdale said the SMC mission assurance team is becoming more familiar with how SpaceX refurbishes rockets in between flights.

“I can’t commit to when we’ll be ready,” he said Friday, referring to when the military could launch a national security payload on a reused Falcon 9 booster.

SpaceX is building an all-new Falcon Heavy rocket for a national security launch late this year, and the company is expected to use a brand new booster for the next GPS launch no earlier than Sept. 30.

The military is currently considering proposals from four companies — SpaceX, ULA, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman — in the next round of launch service procurements. Lauderdale said the military will allow launch service providers who win the the so-called “Phase 2” contracts to bid reused rockets for national security space launches in an effort to reduce costs.

“As a program, we are open and ready and looking forward to whatever industry wants to make available to us, but predominately we’ve been looking at the Phase 2 competition as that opportunity,” Lauderdale said.

With the GPS launch behind them, SpaceX teams on Florida’s Space Coast will again turn their attention to launching a Falcon 9 rocket pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center with the next batch of SpaceX’s Starlink Internet satellites.

That mission was supposed to launch Friday, June 26, but SpaceX scrubbed the launch attempt and postponed the flight until after the GPS launch from nearby pad 40. A launch hazard area warning notice released Tuesday for sailors off Florida’s Space Coast suggested the next Falcon 9/Starlink launch has been rescheduled for Wednesday, July 8.

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SpaceX launches a U.S. Space Force GPS 3 satellite, recovers rocket’s first stage

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched a U.S. Space Force GPS 3 satellite on June 30. The rocket lifted off at 4:10 p.m. Eastern from Cape Canaveral, Florida,

About eight minutes after liftoff, SpaceX landed the Falcon 9’s brand-new first stage on the “Just Read the Instructions” droneship stationed in the Atlantic Ocean.

This was the Falcon 9’s 87th successful mission and the 49th first stage recovered by SpaceX. It also marked the first time the company recovered a booster following a National Security Space Launch mission.

The $568 million payload, the third GPS 3 satellite made by Lockheed Martin, separated from the rocket’s second stage approximately one hour and 29 minutes after liftoff. The satellite was deployed in a medium Earth orbit at an altitude of about 12,550 miles.

SpaceX’s first launch of a GPS 3 satellite was on Dec. 23, 2018. Following the June 30 mission, the company is under contract to launch three more GPS 3 satellites over the next two years.

Tonya Ladwig, vice president of Lockheed Martin Space Systems’ Navigation Systems Division said GPS 3 satellites provide three times greater accuracy and up to eight times more anti-jamming power than the earlier generation of satellites. It also adds a new L1C civil signal.

The new GPS 3 will join a constellation of 31 GPS satellites currently in operation. Each satellite circles the earth twice per day.

Lockheed Martin said the new satellite is responding to commands from program engineers in the launch-and-checkout facility in Denver.

Ladwing said the satellite’s onboard liquid apogee engines will propel it towards its operational orbit in the coming days. “Once it arrives, we’ll send the satellite commands to deploy its solar arrays and antennas, and prepare the satellite for handover to Space Operations Command.”

SpaceNews.com

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SpaceX lands rocket for the first time after US military satellite launch

SpaceX has successfully landed a Falcon 9 booster for the first time after a dedicated satellite launch for the US military, marking a small but significant step towards broader acceptance of reusable rockets.

Despite high upper-level winds pushing Falcon 9 to the end of its 15 minute launch window, the rocket successfully lifted off with the US Air Force (Space Force) GPS III SV03 navigation satellite at 4:10 pm EDT on June 30th. Exactly on schedule, new booster B1060 performed exactly as expected, sending an expendable upper stage, a payload fairing, and the US military spacecraft well on their way to orbit.

A brisk 8.5 minutes after liftoff, SpaceX’s newest flight-proven orbital-class booster landed ~630 km (~390 mi) off the coast of Florida on drone ship Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) – the ship’s second East Coast recovery since its relocation from California. Aside from bolstering SpaceX’s unusually small fleet of four (now five) available Falcon 9 boosters, the landing should also help the US military gradually become more comfortable with the prospect of flying on flight-proven SpaceX hardware, although that is far from guaranteed.

Falcon 9 B1060 stands vertical at SpaceX’s LC-40 pad a few hours before launch. (Richard Angle)
Falcon 9 B1060 lifts off with the US military’s GPS III SV03 spacecraft. (Richard Angle)

Technically, the US Air Force has already allowed SpaceX to fly two flight-proven Falcon boosters on a single mission when Falcon Heavy lifted off for the third time with the military branch’s Space Test Program 2 (STP-2) mission in June 2019. Both Falcon Heavy side boosters (B1052 and B1053) had successfully supported the rocket’s commercial launch debut a little more than two months prior,

USAF photographer James Rainier's remote camera captured this spectacular view of Falcon Heavy Block 5 side boosters B1052 and B1053 returning to SpaceX Landing Zones 1 and 2. (USAF - James Rainier)
Falcon Heavy side boosters B1052 and B1053 land for the second time after supporting a USAF demonstration mission. (USAF – James Rainier)

For vague reasons, the US military is still somehow the only major customer on Earth that remains hesitant about flying on flight-proven SpaceX rockets after 60 consecutively successful launches and almost 50 booster landings overall. Aside from essentially every commercial entity on the market for launch services, even NASA has already purchased several flight-proven Falcon 9 launches to send cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) and test a Crew Dragon abort mode.

More significantly, the space agency recently revealed that it will allow SpaceX to launch astronauts with flight-proven Falcon 9 boosters and spacecraft as early as H1 2021. It’s hard to imagine a stronger endorsement for the reliability of flight-proven SpaceX rockets.

Nevertheless, the US military recently took the biggest step yet towards a positive reception of reusable rockets, revealing that it is actively considering flight-proven SpaceX rockets for future national security space launches (NSSL) – albeit no time soon. For SpaceX, that likely means that Falcon 9 booster B1060 will be immediately turned around to support one or several future Starlink or commercial launches later this year. Either way, GPS III SV03’s successful launch is a major win for SpaceX.

Check out Teslarati’s newsletters for prompt updates, on-the-ground perspectives, and unique glimpses of SpaceX’s rocket launch and recovery processes.

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Timeline for Falcon 9’s launch of the GPS 3 SV03 spacecraft

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is set for liftoff from Cape Canaveral on Tuesday carrying the U.S. Air Force’s next GPS 3-series navigation satellite destined for an orbit more than 12,000 miles above Earth.

The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) rocket is poised for launch from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 3:55:48 p.m. EDT (1955:48 GMT) Tuesday at the opening of a 15-minute launch window.

The Lockheed Martin-built GPS 3 SV03 satellite mounted atop the rocket is the third member of an upgraded generation of GPS navigation spacecraft, featuring higher-power signals that are more resilient to jamming, and additional broadcast frequencies to make the GPS network more interoperable with other navigation satellite fleets.

Unlike SpaceX’s previous launch of a GPS payload in 2018, the mission will fly a slightly different profile to reserve fuel for landing of the Falcon 9 booster. Read our mission preview story for more information.

The timeline below outlines the launch sequence for the Falcon 9 flight with the GPS 3 SV03 spacecraft.

See our Mission Status Center for details on the launch.

Data source: SpaceX

T-0:00:00: Liftoff

After the rocket’s nine Merlin engines pass an automated health check, hold-down clamps will release the Falcon 9 booster for liftoff from Complex 40.
After the rocket’s nine Merlin engines pass an automated health check, hold-down clamps will release the Falcon 9 booster for liftoff from pad 40.

T+0:01:11: Max Q

The Falcon 9 rocket reaches Max Q, the point of maximum aerodynamic pressure.
The Falcon 9 rocket reaches Max Q, the point of maximum aerodynamic pressure, a few seconds after surpassing the speed of sound.

T+0:02:31: MECO

The Falcon 9’s nine Merlin 1D engines shut down.
The Falcon 9’s nine Merlin 1D engines shut down.

T+0:02:35: Stage 1 Separation

The Falcon 9’s first stage separates from the second stage moments after MECO.
The Falcon 9’s first stage separates from the second stage moments after MECO.

T+0:02:42: First Ignition of Second Stage

The second stage Merlin 1D vacuum engine ignites for an approximately 6-minute burn to put the rocket and SES 9 into a preliminary parking orbit.
The second stage Merlin 1D vacuum engine ignites for a five-and-a-half-minute burn to put the rocket and GPS 3 SV03 into a preliminary parking orbit.

T+0:03:28: Fairing Jettison

The 5.2-meter (17.1-foot) diameter payload fairing jettisons once the Falcon 9 rocket ascends through the dense lower atmosphere. The 43-foot-tall fairing is made of two clamshell-like halves composed of carbon fiber with an aluminum honeycomb core.
The 5.2-meter (17.1-foot) diameter payload fairing jettisons once the Falcon 9 rocket ascends through the dense lower atmosphere. The 43-foot-tall fairing is made of two clamshell-like halves composed of carbon fiber with an aluminum honeycomb core.

T+0:06:45: First Stage Entry Burn Complete

The Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage descends back to Earth as its engines fire for the entry burn before landing on SpaceX’s drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

T+0:08:07: SECO 1

The second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket shuts down after reaching a preliminary low-altitude orbit. The upper stage and SES 9 begin a coast phase scheduled to last more than 18 minutes before the second stage Merlin vacuum engine reignites.
The second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket shuts down after reaching a preliminary orbit. The upper stage and GPS 3 SV03 begin a coast phase scheduled to about one hour before the second stage Merlin-Vacuum engine reignites.

T+0:06:45: First Stage Landing

The Falcon 9’s first stage booster lands on SpaceX’s drone ship “Just Read The Instructions” positioned in Atlantic Ocean northeast of Cape Canaveral.

T+1:03:28: Second Ignition of Second Stage

The Falcon 9's second stage Merlin engine restarts to propel the SES 9 communications satellite into a supersynchronous transfer orbit.
The Falcon 9’s second stage Merlin engine restarts to propel the GPS 3 SV01 navigation satellite into an elliptical transfer orbit ranging in altitude between about 250 miles (400 kilometers) and 12,550 miles (20,200 kilometers), with an inclination of 55 degrees.

T+1:04:13: SECO 2

The Merlin engine shuts down after a short burn to put the SES 10 satellite in the proper orbit for deployment.
The Merlin engine shuts down after a planned 45-second burn to put the GPS 3 SV03 satellite in the proper orbit for deployment.

T+1:29:14: GPS 3 SV03 Separation

The SES 9 satellite separates from the Falcon 9 rocket in an orbit with a predicted high point of about 39,300 kilometers (24,400 miles), a low point of 290 kilometers (180 miles) and an inclination of 28 degrees. Due to the decision to burn the second stage nearly to depletion, there is some slight uncertainty on the orbital parameters based on the exact performance of the launcher.
The GPS 3 SV03 satellite separates from the Falcon 9 rocket in an elliptical transfer orbit with an apogee, or high point, near the altitude of the GPS fleet, located around 12,550 miles (22,200 kilometers) above Earth.

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Live coverage: SpaceX counting down to launch of GPS navigation satellite

Live coverage of the countdown and launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida with the U.S. Air Force’s GPS 3 SV03 navigation satellite. Text updates will appear automatically below. Follow us on Twitter.

SpaceX’s live video webcast begins around 15 minutes prior to launch, and will be available on this page.

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SpaceX set for rocket recovery first after US military satellite launch

A SpaceX Falcon 9 is set to become the first commercial rocket to attempt to land after an operational launch for the US military, potentially paving the way for an even more significant milestone somewhere down the road.

Featuring brand new booster B1060 and a new upper stage and payload fairing, Falcon 9 is scheduled to launch the US military’s third upgraded GPS III satellite (PS III SV01) no earlier than (NET) 3:55 pm EDT (19:55 UTC) on June 30th. While it will be the second time a Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket has lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) Launch Complex 40 (LC-40) with a GPS III satellite in tow, the mission will mark a critical first for SpaceX and the US military. For the first GPS III mission, the US Air Force somewhat inexplicably required SpaceX to expend the new Falcon 9 booster assigned to the December 2018 launch.

The US military never offered a technical explanation for why Falcon 9 couldn’t land after launching a ~3900 kg (~8600 lb) GPS III SV01 to a medium orbit but could, for example, land after launching a dozen metric tons and two NASA astronauts. Regardless, the US Air Force Space and Missile Systems Command (SMC) has decided that SpaceX can now attempt to land Falcon 9’s first stage during the company’s second GPS III launch. A step further, on the eve of the mission, SMC has revealed that it may even be opening up to the idea of reusing SpaceX boosters on future military launches.

Falcon 9 B1060 stands vertical at LC-40 ahead of its first launch – the US military’s third GPS III satellite mission. (SpaceX)

Falcon 9 B1060 has a 15-minute window to launch the GPS III SV03 spacecraft on Tuesday, June 30th. Meanwhile, drone ship Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) – heading out to sea to prepare for B1060’s attempted landing – recently passed just a few miles from drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) – returning to Port Canaveral after SpaceX decided to delay its ninth Starlink v1.0 launch from June 23rd. 25th, and 26th to the first or second week of July.

JRTI arrived at its post ~630 km (~390 mi) East of the Florida Coast on June 29th, around 36 hours before liftoff.

Drone ship JRTI was recently recommissioned after extensive upgrades and a several thousand mile move from Port of Los Angeles, California to Port Canaveral, Florida, ultimately supporting its first East Coast booster landing and recovery barely three weeks ago. If successful, B1060 will become the first orbital-class booster ever to land after an operational US military launch, excluding a number of Space Shuttle missions in the 1980s.

Falcon 9 B1049 returned to port for the fifth time as part of drone ship JRTI’s East Coast rocket recovery debut. (Richard Angle)

According to reporting by Space News’ Sandra Erwin, it’s unlikely that SpaceX will reserve Falcon 9 booster B1060 – assuming a successful landing – for reuse on a future US military launch. Given that SMC appears to have even stricter requirements than NASA’s Commercial Crew (CCP) and Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) programs, it’s safe to assume that – like NASA – the US military will only initially allow booster reuse if said booster has only flown missions for the agency. Given that Falcon 9’s next known US military launch (GPS III SV04) is NET “late 2020” and that there “are currently no plans to use a previously-flown booster on any future GPS launches”, it’s unlikely that SpaceX will waste a perfectly good booster by saving it for 6-18+ months.

Regardless, as usual, SpaceX will host an uninterrupted webcast of the launch. Tune in around 15 minutes prior to catch SpaceX’s third launch of the month and 11th of the year.

Check out Teslarati’s newsletters for prompt updates, on-the-ground perspectives, and unique glimpses of SpaceX’s rocket launch and recovery processes.

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Exolaunch and NanoAvionics sign contracts for SpaceX flights

SAN FRANCISCO – German launch services provider Exolaunch announced contracts June 29 to integrate NanoAvionics cubesats on SpaceX’s rideshare missions.

Under the agreements, Exolaunch is procuring the launch, handling integration and deploying in orbit two six-unit cubesats built by NanoAvionics, a Lithuanian nanosatellite manufacturer. The first NanoAvionics cubesat covered by the new contract is scheduled to reach orbit on a SpaceX Falcon 9 dedicated rideshare mission in December 2020. The second is schedule for a 2021 SpaceX flight.

“We are glad to be collaborating with Exolaunch on these upcoming satellite launches,” Vytenis Buzas, NanoAvionics CEO and co-founder, said in a statement. “The company is an experienced and trusted partner that responds well to our needs. Not only do they provide deployment systems with a solid flight heritage, but their flexibility towards offering the most suitable launch solutions is extremely valuable to our company and customers.”

Exolaunch announced its first contract in April to send customer satellites on the December 2020 Falcon 9 rideshare flight.

“Exolaunch has numerous international customers who already signed up for this mission,” according to the June 29 news release. “Recently the company extended its contract with SpaceX for an additional ESPA port.” (ESPA is a rocket adapter for secondary payloads.)

“We quickly filled the slots procured on SpaceX’s first dedicated rideshare launch this year,” Exolaunch Commercial Director Jeanne Medvedeva told SpaceNews. “We’ve now started procuring capacity on Falcon 9 rideshare launches in 2021.”

NanoAvionics, a spinoff of Lithuania’s Vilnius University, has established facilities in Vilnius, the United Kingdom and the United States to satisfy growing demand for small satellites.

NanoAvionics is under contract to build five nanosatellites for Sen, a British company planning to stream high-definition video of Earth. A consortium of Norwegian and Dutch research centers hired NanoAvionics to build two nanosatellites for space-based spectrum monitoring. In addition, Thales Alenia Space selected NanoAvionics to manufacture the first two satellite buses for the Omnispace’s internet-of-things constellation.

Exolaunch plans to conduct mechanical testing prior to launching the NanoAvionics cubesats at its Berlin, Germany, headquarters, before integrating the satellites with SpaceX launch vehicles at Florida’s Cape Canaveral. The NanoAvionics satellites will be integrated on a Falcon 9 ESPA port and deployed in orbit using Exolaunch’s EXOpod cubesat deployer, according to the news release.

SpaceNews.com

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U.S. military makes adjustments in GPS launch to allow for SpaceX booster landing

The U.S. military’s third GPS 3-series satellite, designated SV03, is prepared for encapsulation inside the payload fairing of its SpaceX-built Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX is preparing for liftoff Tuesday of its first mission for the U.S. Space Force, a launch from Cape Canaveral that will deploy a new GPS navigation satellite using a redesigned profile to allow the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage booster to reserve enough propellant for landing on SpaceX’s drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

The launch profile adjustment to make landing of the Falcon 9 booster possible ended up saving “several million dollars” for the military from the original SpaceX launch contract value of $96.5 million, according to Walter Lauderdale, mission director for the GPS SV03 launch from the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center.

The U.S. Space Force’s third GPS 3-series navigation satellite is set for liftoff from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad during a 15-minute launch window opening at 3:55 p.m. EDT (1955 GMT) Tuesday. There’s a 60 percent chance of favorable weather, according to a forecast issued by the Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron.

Built by Lockheed Martin, the spacecraft will join two previous GPS 3 satellites launched by SpaceX in 2018 and by United Launch Alliance last year.

Tuesday’s mission is the first by SpaceX for the Space Force since the establishment of the new military branch in December.

“This is our first U.S. Space Force launch, and we’re really excited about it and hope this is the first of many, many of those launches in the future,” said Lee Rosen, SpaceX’s vice president of customer operations and integration.

During a nearly 90-minute launch sequence, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket head northeast from Cape Canaveral and propel the 9,505-pound (4,311-kilogram) GPS 3 SV03 spacecraft into an elliptical transfer orbit ranging between about 250 miles (400 kilometers) and 12,550 miles (20,200 kilometers) in altitude. The Falcon 9’s on-board computer will aim to release the GPS 3 SV03 satellite into an orbit inclined 55 degrees to the equator.

On SpaceX’s first launch of a GPS navigation satellite in December 2018, military officials required the launch company to devote all of the Falcon 9 rocket’s capacity to placing the spacecraft into orbit. That meant SpaceX could not install landing legs on the Falcon 9’s first stage or attempt recovery of the booster.

SpaceX lands, refurbishes and re-flies Falcon 9 first stages to reduce costs, and it is the only launch company that currently reuses rocket hardware.

The launch of the GPS 3 SV03 mission Tuesday is the first flight with a high-priority national security satellite that will reserve propellant for landing of the rocket. SpaceX has recovered rockets on previous launches with military payloads, such as a Falcon Heavy mission last June, but those missions carried experimental technology demonstration and research satellites — not operational spacecraft like a GPS satellite.

On SpaceX’s first GPS launch in 2018, the military required the Falcon 9 rocket to place the spacecraft into an orbit with a higher perigee, or low point, of more than 740 miles, or about 1,200 kilometers. Teams also loaded extra fuel into the GPS spacecraft as an extra precaution.

It was the first high-priority national security payload to launch on a SpaceX rocket, and it was also the first satellite in a new design of GPS spacecraft.

“Simply put, there was insufficient performance given the mission trajectory and payload weight, combined with the uncertainties associated with this demanding mission,” Lauderdale said.

“Our evaluation of that mission’s performance, combined with additional work with SpaceX, reduced uncertainty in many areas,” Lauderdale said. “When we approached SpaceX to revise some spacecraft requirements for this mission … they responded with an opportunity to recover the booster in exchange for adding these requirements, as well as other considerations.”

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is prepared for rollout to Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad. Credit: SpaceX

Officials are now more comfortable with the performance of the Falcon 9 rocket and the new GPS 3-series satellite design. That allowed engineers to load less propellant into the third GPS 3 satellite.

Mission planners also changed the perigee of the spacecraft’s initial orbit after launch from around 740 miles to 250 miles, according to Col. Edward Byrne, senior materiel leader at SMC’s Medium Earth Orbit space systems division.

“All that required from us was to reassess our burn profile, so we made some slight modifications to that burn profile, but there’s been no mission impact associated with the booster recovery option,” Byrne said in a pre-launch conference call with reporters.

One change to the Falcon 9 rocket requested by the Space Force for the GPS SV03 mission is a gray band of thermal insulation on the launcher’s upper stage. The thermal layer will help maintain kerosene fuel at proper temperatures during a nearly one-hour coast phase between the first and second burns of the upper stage’s Merlin engine.

SpaceX has tested the thermal layer before, but it did not fly on the first GPS 3 launch in 2018. The company has experimented with long-duration coasts of the Falcon upper stage to gather data before the first dedicated launch of a national security payload on SpaceX’s triple-core Falcon Heavy rocket late this year.

Military engineers charged with overseeing the design and production of SpaceX rockets for national security missions assessed numerous configuration changes since the Falcon 9’s first launch of a GPS satellite in 2018.

“Since the GPS 3 launch in December 2018, we’ve worked with SpaceX to stay current on the configuration of the Falcon 9, evaluating 665 changes,” Lauderdale said. “This enabled us to maintain the vehicle technical baseline that is the foundation of our independent mission assurance.”

The military has contracted with SpaceX to launch the fourth, fifth and sixth GPS 3 satellites. Assuming the launch of GPS SV03 goes according to plan, the SV04 mission could launch from Cape Canaveral on a Falcon 9 rocket as soon as Sept. 30, according to the Space and Missile Systems Center.

The GPS SV05 spacecraft is scheduled for launch on a Falcon 9 rocket in January.

Space Force officials have not yet approved SpaceX to launch critical national security satellites using previously-flown boosters. SpaceX has re-launched Falcon boosters 37 times to date with a 100 percent success record.

Lauderdale said the SMC mission assurance team is becoming more familiar with how SpaceX refurbishes rockets in between flights.

“I can’t commit to when we’ll be ready,” he said Friday, referring to when the military could launch a national security payload on a reused Falcon 9 booster.

SpaceX is building an all-new Falcon Heavy rocket for a national security launch late this year, and the company is expected to use a brand new booster for the next GPS launch no earlier than Sept. 30.

The military is currently considering proposals from four companies — SpaceX, ULA, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman — in the next round of launch service procurements. Lauderdale said the military will allow launch service providers who win the the so-called “Phase 2” contracts to bid reused rockets for national security space launches in an effort to reduce costs.

“As a program, we are open and ready and looking forward to whatever industry wants to make available to us, but predominately we’ve been looking at the Phase 2 competition as that opportunity,” Lauderdale said.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket stands vertical on pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station before launch of the GPS 3 SV03 spacecraft. Credit: Lockheed Martin

The GPS 3 SV03 spacecraft awaiting launch Tuesday will use its on-board propulsion system to circularize its orbit after separation from the Falcon 9 rocket. It’s expected to enter service later this year.

Both of the previous GPS 3-series satellites are healthy, according to the U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center. They were “set healthy” and officially entered the operational GPS constellation Jan. 13 and April 1, an SMC spokesperson said.

The launch of the GPS 3 SV03 spacecraft is timed to inject the satellite into Plane E, Slot 4 of the GPS constellation. That position is currently occupied by a GPS satellite launched May 10, 2000, from Cape Canaveral on a Delta 2 rocket. Military officials did not say whether that satellite, which was originally designed for a 10-year mission, will be decommissioned or moved to another slot in the GPS network.

The GPS satellites are spread among six orbital planes, each with four primary spacecraft, plus spares. Byrne said Friday the GPS constellation currently consists of 31 satellites.

The GPS network provides positioning and timing services worldwide for military and civilian users, beaming signals relied upon by airliners, ATMs, drivers and smart bombs, among numerous other users.

“The Global Positioning System has become part of our critical national infrastructure, from transportation to financial markets to energy grids to the rideshare industry,” said Tonya Ladwig, acting vice president of Lockheed Martin’s navigation systems division. “It’s no longer a matter of did you use GPS today. It’s a matter of how many times did you actually use it.”

The GPS 3 satellites provide more accurate navigation signals and boasting longer design lifetimes of 15 years. The new GPS 3 satellites also broadcast e a new L1C civilian signal that is compatible with Europe’s Galileo network and Japan’s Quasi-Zenith Satellite System.

Other space-based navigation networks operated by Japan and China are also adopting similar compatible signals.

Like the previous line of Boeing-built GPS 2F satellites, all GPS 3-series spacecraft broadcast a dedicated L5 signal geared to support air navigation. The GPS 3 satellites also continue beaming an encrypted military-grade navigation signal known as M-code.

The M-code signal allows GPS satellites to broadcast higher-power, jam-resistant signals over specific regions, such as a military theater or battlefield. The capability provides U.S. and allied forces with more reliable navigation services, and could also allow the military to intentionally disrupt or jam civilian-grade GPS signals in a particular region, while the M-code signal remains unimpeded.

L3Harris Technologies builds the navigation payloads for the GPS 3 satellites.

Ladwig said the GPS 3 SV04 and SV05 spacecraft are complete and in storage awaiting launch, and the next three satellites are fully assembled and undergoing environmental testing. SV09 and SV10 are currently being assembled at Lockheed Martin’s GPS satellite factory near Denver.

Lockheed Martin is on contract with the Defense Department to build 10 GPS 3 satellites — two of which have launched — and up to 22 upgraded GPS 3F-series satellites.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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SpaceX’s reusable Falcon rockets have Europe thinking two steps ahead

In a rare instance of some connection to reality, a European Union commissioner overseeing the space industry has acknowledged the elephant in the room, admitting that SpaceX has changed the game for commercial rockets and that the upcoming Ariane 6 rocket may already be outdated.

While slight, European Commissioner Thierry Breton expressed some level of urgency, stating that “SpaceX has redefined the standards for launchers.” “Ariane 6 is a necessary step, but not the ultimate aim: we must start thinking now about Ariane 7.” Ariane 6 is a new European Space Agency (ESA) rocket designed to replace the existing Ariane 5 workhorse and do some while cutting costs. However, the vehicle’s design and the strategy behind it were fixed in place before SpaceX began to routinely demonstrate Falcon 9 reusability, effectively creating a rocket optimized for a market that ceased to exist soon after.

Based on the economically infeasible design decision to build a hybrid first stage with a liquid core and add-on solid rocket boosters (SRBs), as well as the structurally inefficient use of hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellant for the booster, Ariane 6 is designed to compete with the likes of the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Delta IV, Atlas V, and upcoming Vulcan rockets. Despite several years of halfhearted, half-baked attempts to even consider making parts of Ariane 6 reusable, the rocket will be 100% expendable come its first (and likely last) launches.

Ariane 5, Ariane 6, and Falcon 9. (Arianespace/SpaceX)

While effectively dead on arrival from a commercially competitive perspective, Ariane 6 is still an impressive rocket. Featuring two variants, the only major difference is the inclusion of either two or four SRBs. A62 is expected to cost roughly $82 million and will be able to launch up to 5000 kg (~11,000 lb) to the geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) commonly used by the communications satellites that are Ariane 5’s bread and butter. Doubling down on solid rocket boosters, A64 will cost at least $135 million apiece and can launch up to 11.5 metric tons (~25,400 lb) to GTO and 5 metric tons to a circular geostationary orbit (GEO).

Ariane 62 and 64. (ESA)

Compared to SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy offerings, Ariane 6 is thus put in a bit of a nightmarish situation. According to the most up-to-date information available, the base price for a commercial orbital launch on a flight-proven Falcon 9 booster may already be as low as $50 million. Even in a recoverable configuration, Falcon 9 easily trounces Ariane 62’s performance and is able to launch more than 16 metric tons to low Earth orbit (A62: 10.3 t) and 5.5 tons (A62: 5 t) to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), all while costing almost 40% less.

Technically, Ariane 64 is a bit more viable from a performance perspective, but Falcon Heavy can offer almost identical performance to higher orbits and vastly superior performance to lower orbits while still permitting recovery of all three boosters. Cost-wise, Falcon Heavy either meets or beats A64, with existing contracts ranging from $115 to $130 million for extraordinarily high-value NASA and US military payloads. According to SpaceX, the rocket’s base price could be as low as $90 million. Once SpaceX has three operational drone ships on the East Coast, Falcon Heavy can send up to 10 metric tons to GTO while still allowing all three boosters to land at sea. If one of those three boosters is expended, that performance leaps to 16 tons, 40% more than A64.

A different angle of Falcon Heavy Flight 2's liftoff from Teslarati photographer Pauline Acalin. (Pauline Acalin)
(Pauline Acalin)
USAF photographer James Rainier's remote camera captured this spectacular view of Falcon Heavy Block 5 side boosters B1052 and B1053 returning to SpaceX Landing Zones 1 and 2. (USAF - James Rainier)
(USAF – James Rainier)

In short, even assuming no improvements between now and Ariane 6’s first several launches in 2021 and 2022, SpaceX’s existing Falcon 9 and Heavy rockets beat Europe’s newest entrant at almost every turn. It should be no surprise, then, that a senior ESA commissioner is already publicly implying that Ariane 6 is outdated before its first launch. As far as “Ariane 7” goes, no official plans exist, although ESA, French space agency (CNES), and Arianespace have tenuous concepts in work that point towards a fully liquid methane-oxygen rocket with a reusable booster.

In theory, a rocket like Themis could launch Europe back into the competitive global launch industry, but ESA’s history of launch vehicle development suggests that such a radical departure from Ariane 5 and Ariane 6 (>$4 billion on its own) would require a huge uptick in funding and 5-10 years of development. With pragmatic supporters like Breton, there is at least some hope, but the outlook is decidedly gray.

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SpaceX Starship event expected this September, says Elon Musk

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has implied that he will continue the tradition of hosting an annual Starship update event later this year, likely presenting on the progress the company has made over the last 12 months at its South Texas rocket factory.

Beginning in Guadalajara, Mexico at the September 2016 International Astronautical Congress (IAC), Musk has presented a detailed update on the status of SpaceX’s next-generation Starship launch vehicle in September or October for the last four years. Formerly known as the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) and Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), Starship is effectively a continuation of the unprecedented progress SpaceX has made with Falcon 9 and Heavy reusability.

SpaceX has managed to reliably reuse Falcon boosters 5+ times and is on the way to replicating that with payload fairings, but Musk has concluded that the Falcon family – despite being some of the largest operational rockets in existence – is just too small to feasibly recover and reuse the orbital second stage. With Starship, SpaceX wants to take a slightly different approach.

A senior SpaceX engineer and executive believes that Starship’s first orbital launch could still happen by the end of 2020. (SpaceX)

While also a two-stage rocket, Starship will have a magnitude more thrust than Falcon 9 and twice the thrust of Saturn V, the largest liquid rocket ever successfully launched. More importantly, both Starship stages are designed to be easily and rapidly reusable, while also entirely getting rid of deployable payload fairings. In theory, once fully optimized, Starship and the Super Heavy booster should be capable of placing 150 metric tons (~330,000 lb) of payload into low Earth orbit (LEO) in a single launch.

Of course, that is going to be an immense challenge – arguably the single most ambitious project in the history of commercial spaceflight – and SpaceX has quite a ways to go before it can even come close. Aside from the huge publicity and excitement it generates, offering detailed explanations of how exactly SpaceX is progressing towards those goals and how Starship’s design is evolving is likely the primary reason Musk has chosen to continue doing annual presentations.

SpaceX may likely be years away from routine, full-reusable Starship launches but that doesn’t mean that no progress has been made. In the last ~10 months, SpaceX has successfully flown Starhopper to 150 meters (500 ft), destroyed Starship Mk1; built, tested, and destroyed Starships SN1, SN3, SN4, and four standalone test tanks; and expanded its South Texas presence from almost nothing to a large, semi-permanent factory.

Aside from Starship production and testing, SpaceX has evolved the cutting-edge Raptor engine from a relatively rough prototype to an engine capable of operating at the fringes of what thermodynamics will allow. Per Musk, a vacuum-optimized variant of the existing Raptor engine may already be preparing for its first test fires in McGregor, Texas. Meanwhile, SpaceX won its first Starship contract from NASA a matter of weeks ago, solidifying the ambitious rocket’s stature relative to other more traditional next-generation rockets from Blue Origin and the United Launch Alliance (ULA).

Starship SN5 is perhaps less than 24 hours away from kicking off an ambitious test campaign that could conclude with it becoming the first full-scale prototype to take flight. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

All things considered, there is an extraordinary amount of tangible progress on tap for the Starship update Musk says is planned for September. With a little luck, the 2020 presentation will align with Starship’s test program much like the 2019 event did with Starhopper, coming just a few months after ambitious flight tests.

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