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Falcon 9 launches GPS satellite in first national security mission with reused booster

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched a U.S. Space Force GPS 3 satellite June 17. The rocket lifted off at 12:09 p.m. Eastern from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida. 

The Falcon 9 launched the Lockheed Martin-built GPS 3 Space Vehicle 5 — the 5th satellite of the GPS 3 constellation that provides positioning, navigation and timing signals to military and civilian users.

With this launch, the Space Force officially enters the era of reusable rockets. GPS 3 SV-5 was the first National Security Space Launch mission where SpaceX used a previously flown Falcon 9 first stage. The booster — designated B1062 — was recovered Nov. 5 after the launch of GPS 3 SV-4.

The rocket’s first stage separated from the second stage approximately two minutes and 40 seconds after liftoff. About eight minutes and 35 seconds after liftoff, the Falcon 9’s first stage touched down on the “Just Read the Instructions” droneship off the coast of Florida in the Atlantic Ocean.

The booster landing was the third time SpaceX recovered the Falcon 9 first stage in a National Security Space Launch mission and the 88th successful recovery of a first stage by the company. 

The GPS 3 SV-5 satellite will join the constellation of 31 spacecraft that operate in medium Earth orbit at an altitude of 12,550 miles in six orbital planes. Each satellite circles the Earth twice per day.

The June 17 mission was SpaceX’s fourth launch of a military GPS 3 satellite under the National Security Space Launch program. The first was on Dec. 23, 2018, the second one took place on June 30, 2020 and the third on Nov. 5, 2020.

The company is under contract to launch GPS 3 SV-6 next year.

Col. Robert Bongiovi, the director of the Space Force Launch Enterprise, said SpaceX will continue to fly reused boosters in national security missions.  

“We are building on the successful booster recoveries of GPS 3 SV-3 and GPS 2 SV-4 last year and making a historic step with the GPS 3 SV-5 mission using a previously flown vehicle,” he said. “The affordability and flexibility provided with SpaceX’s reused launch vehicles open additional opportunities for future NSSL missions.”

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Upcoming SpaceX mission a reusability milestone for national security launch

WASHINGTON — The upcoming SpaceX launch of a GPS 3 satellite scheduled for June 17 will be the first national security space mission to use a refurbished Falcon 9 booster.  The U.S. Space Force initially ordered an expendable rocket but agreed to the switch with a caveat: the reused booster had to be the one that flew another GPS 3 satellite to orbit last November. 

A Space Force official told reporters June 14 that this requirement is just for this mission as the military gets more comfortable with reusability. In the future SpaceX will be able to bid for national security launch contracts “with no restrictions on reusability,” said Walter Lauderdale, deputy mission director of the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Launch Enterprise. 

This means the Space Force will allow SpaceX to fly future national security missions on Falcon 9 boosters that previously launched commercial or NASA payloads.

“Later this year we’ll work with them on what boosters are available. Not just those flown for national security launch, we’re open to using others,” Lauderdale said during a conference call with reporters.

Lauderdale said it’s taken SMC’s Launch Enterprise several years to get to this point after working with SpaceX and gaining a better understanding of how its fleet operates. 

SpaceX’s first mission under the National Security Space Launch program in December 2018 — GPS 3 SV-01 — flew on an expendable rocket. For the second and third GPS 3 launches in June and November 2020 (GPS 3 SV-03 and SV-04), the Space Force allowed SpaceX to recover the boosters. For the next two GPS 3 missions, GPS 3 SV-05 and SV-06, the company will be able to fly reused boosters and recover them. 

SpaceX received a bulk contract worth $290.5 million to launch GPS 3 SV-04, SV-05 and SV-06. After agreeing to booster recovery and reuse, the price was reduced by $64 million over the three missions, Lauderdale said. 

GPS 3 SV-06 is projected to launch in 2022. 

For the launch of SV-06 SpaceX will be allowed to offer a booster that has flown more than twice, said Lauderdale.

There are still four more GPS 3 launch contracts to be awarded under Phase 2 of the National Security Space Launch program. SpaceX and United Launch Alliance are the two launch providers selected for Phase 2 for a five-year period from 2022 to 2027.  Under the terms of the contract, the Space Force has to give ULA 60 percent of the missions over the five years and SpaceX 40 percent. 

Given SpaceX’s win streak with GPS missions, the company is likely to launch more GPS satellites in the coming years. SpaceX got five of the six GPS 3 launches awarded over the past four years. ULA in 2019 launched a GPS satellite on the final flight of the Delta 4 Medium rocket before it retired the vehicle.

Lauderdale said Phase 2 launch awards don’t set reusability limits. “We have to continue to look beyond two or three, he said. “Phase 2 doesn’t specify a count.” There are no restrictions on reused payload fairings either, he said.  

The next GPS contract up for award is the seventh GPS 3 satellite (SV-07), one of five missions funded in the Space Force’s $1.4 billion budget request for national security launch services for fiscal year 2022, a Space and Missile Systems Center spokesman confirmed. 

The other three — GPS 3 SV-08, SV-09 and SV-10 — “are currently being tracked as future launch service requirements, the spokesman said.

GPS 3 satellites are made by Lockheed Martin. The company in 2008 got a contract to develop and produce 10 satellites, four of which are in orbit. The last four that have not been awarded launches yet will be completed long before they’re expected to fly to orbit. Because of the lag time between delivery of the satellites and their projected launches, these last four will be kept in storage at Lockheed Martin’s facility in Colorado.

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Space Force to clear reused Falcon 9 booster for upcoming GPS launch

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force this month will complete a design review of a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster that flew a military GPS satellite to orbit last summer. The booster is expected to fly another GPS satellite sometime in June.

The upcoming launch of the fifth GPS 3 satellite known as SV05 will be the first mission under the national security space launch program to use a refurbished Falcon 9 booster. The satellite, made by Lockheed Martin, arrived at Cape Canaveral, Florida, last month. 

The booster that will fly GPS 3 SV05 has flown once before. It launched GPS 3 SV03 on June 30 and landed on a drone ship. That was the first time SpaceX recovered a booster following a national security space launch mission. SpaceX launched a GPS 3 satellite in December 2018 but the first stage was expended due to government requirements that did not make it possible to bring the booster back to Earth. 

Col. Rob Bongiovi, director of the Space and Missile Systems Center launch enterprise, said a “non-recurring design validation” of the booster that will launch GPS 3 SV05 will be completed in early May.

In a statement to SpaceNews, Bongiovi said the Space Force “is leveraging reusability to increase reliability, responsiveness, flexibility and affordability while maintaining an unprecedented record of mission success.”

SpaceX also launched GPS 3 SV04 on Nov. 5 and recovered that booster, which the Space Force agreed to fly again to launch GPS 3 SV06. 

The contracts with SpaceX to launch both GPS SV05 and SV06 in 2021 were renegotiated last year to allow reused boosters, saving the government about $64 million, Bongiovi said.

The non-recurring design validation of the booster that will fly SV05 has taken several months. Much of the work is done by The Aerospace Corp., which provides technical guidance and advice to the U.S. government. 

The process to validate the reused booster “was built off the foundation we used for the original expendable booster certification — and then we augmented it to account for elements that see extra duty cycles, thermal or dynamic loading events as part of the re-entry, landing and reuse,” Randy Kendall, Aerospace vice president of launch and enterprise operations, told SpaceNews. 

SpaceX, according to its latest count, has landed 75 first stages, and many of its boosters have flown multiple times. But reusability is a relatively new thing for national security launch. 

“We’ve only flown three NSSL missions with SpaceX, so we’re still building our experience base with them,” said Kendall.

“We have been following their commercial missions and are leveraging that heavily to build the database for the reuse certification,” he said. “Once we’re complete with our certification process, we don‘t consider the reused booster any higher risk than any other booster — by definition it meets the same reliability standard we hold all of the NSSL rockets to.”

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SpaceX launches U.S. Space Force GPS 3 satellite

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched a U.S. Space Force GPS 3 satellite Nov. 5. The rocket lifted off at 6:24 p.m. Eastern from from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. 

The Falcon 9 carried the Lockheed Martin-built GPS 3 Space Vehicle 4 — the 4th satellite of the GPS 3 constellation that provides positioning, navigation and timing signals to military and civilian users.

About eight and a half minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9’s brand-new first stage touched down on the “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship off the coast of Florida in the Atlantic Ocean.

This was SpaceX’s second attempt to launch SV 4. The mission was aborted Oct. 2 two seconds before liftoff. 

SpaceX vice president Hans Koenigsmann told reporters Oct. 28 that the engine anomaly that triggered the automatic abort was caused by material that blocked a relief valve in the engine’s gas generator, which powers the engine’s turbo pumps. The last-second abort prevented a hard start of the engine, he said, which could have damaged it.

The new GPS 3 satellite will join the constellation of 31 spacecraft that operate in medium Earth orbit at an altitude of 12,550 miles in six orbital planes. Each satellite circles the Earth twice per day.

The Nov. 5 mission was SpaceX’s third launch of a military GPS 3 satellite under the National Security Space Launch program. The first was on Dec. 23, 2018 and the second one took place on June 30, 2020. 

The booster landing was the second time SpaceX recovered the Falcon 9 main booster in a National Security Space Launch mission.

The company is under contract to launch two more GPS 3 satellites next year. SpaceX will use previously flown boosters in the next two launches for Space Vehicles 5 and 6 of the GPS 3 constellation. 

The booster recovered Nov. 5 will be refurbished and flown again to launch the GPS 3 Space Vehicle 5 in mid-2021. Lockheed Martin said the satellite was delivered and was declared “available for launch” in May 2020. It will be placed in storage until next summer.

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SpaceX’s contract to launch GPS satellites modified to allow reuse of Falcon 9 boosters

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for the first time next year will launch a military GPS satellite with a previously flown main booster, the U.S. Space Force announced Sept. 25.

The company reached an agreement earlier this month with the Space and Missile Systems Center so SpaceX can launch two GPS satellites next year using previously flown boosters. SMC said this will save the government more than $52 million in launch costs. 

Although SpaceX routinely recovers and reuses rocket hardware in its commercial and NASA launches, the U.S. military has only recently started to allow SpaceX to recover boosters in GPS missions. The company on June 30 launched the 3rd vehicle of the GPS 3 constellation with a brand-new Falcon 9 booster and recovered it. 

The 4th GPS 3 vehicle scheduled to launch Sept. 29 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, will fly on a new Falcon 9 that SpaceX will attempt to recover. For the launches of the 5th and 6th GPS vehicles next year, SpaceX will use previously flown boosters. 

“I am thrilled to welcome SpaceX’s innovative reuse into the National Security Space Launch program,” Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, said in a statement.

During a call with reporters Sept. 25, Walt Lauderdale, SMC’s Falcon Systems and Operations Division chief, said the contract modifications for the upcoming GPS 3 missions will save the government $52.7 million 

Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, said in a statement: “We appreciate the effort that the U.S. Space Force invested into the evaluation and are pleased that they see the benefits of the technology.”

SpaceX’s existing contract to launch GPS 3 satellites ends after vehicle 6.  Lockheed Martin is producing four more satellites (7 through 10) but the launches have not been awarded yet. Lauderdale said those missions will be awarded under the Phase 2 of the National Security Space Launch program. United Launch Alliance and SpaceX will compete head to head for all Phase 2 missions. 

SMC had planned to start flying payloads on previously flown Falcon 9s in Phase 2 but decided to get an early start with the current GPS contract.

“That will set us up for our partnership with SpaceX for Phase 2 over the next year,” said Lauderdale.

To allow reused boosters and get the cost savings, SMC had delay the 5th GPS 3 launch from January to July 2021 to allow time for design validation and “make sure we understand how SpaceX refurbishes previously flown hardware,” Lauderdale said. “This gets us started before Phase 2. We’re getting going now.”

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Photos: Falcon 9 rocket launches from Florida with GPS navigation satellite

The first launch by SpaceX for the U.S. Space Force on June 30 carried the third in a new line of modernized GPS navigation satellites into orbit from Cape Canaveral.

The 9,505-pound (4,311-kilogram) GPS 3 SV03 spacecraft rode into orbit inside the payload shroud of a Falcon 9 rocket, on the way to replace an aging GPS satellite launched in May 2000.

These photos show the Falcon 9 rocket firing off pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 4:10:46 p.m. EDT (2010:46 GMT). Nine Merlin 1D engines, burning a mixture of kerosene and liquid oxygen, powered the Falcon 9 into the sky with 1.7 million pounds of thrust.

The launch marked the 88th flight of a Falcon 9 rocket since SpaceX debuted its workhorse launch vehicle in June 2010. It was the 11th Falcon 9 flight so far in 2020.

Read our full story for details on the June 30 launch.

Credit: SpaceX
Credit: SpaceX
Credit: SpaceX
Credit: SpaceX
Credit: SpaceX
Credit: SpaceX
Credit: SpaceX
Credit: Lockheed Martin
Credit: SpaceX
Credit: Lockheed Martin
Credit: SpaceX
Credit: SpaceX

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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.”

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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.