SpaceX Delivers 5th GPS Block III Space Force Satellite to Orbit

Photo: SpaceX

SpaceX has successfully flown its 19th Falcon 9 of the year, with the lunchtime launch of the once-used B1062 core and the fifth Block III Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation and timing satellite for the U.S. Space Force. Liftoff occurred at 12:09 p.m. EDT Thursday from storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla., and GPS III-05—or “Space Vehicle 05” (SV05) in military parlance—was satisfactorily inserted into Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) at an altitude of 12,550 miles (20,200 km) about 89 minutes later.

Following its second duty, B1062 returned to a picture-perfect touchdown on the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Just Read the Instructions”, situated about 400 miles (640 km) offshore in the Atlantic Ocean.

Weather conditions both for Thursday’s opening launch attempt and Friday’s backup try were predicted to be 70-percent-favorable, tempered by a risk of violating the Cumulus Cloud Rule and the Surface Electric Fields Rule, after strong afternoon thunderstorms in Florida this week. “A front will be stalled out to our north,” noted the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base in its L-1 briefing on Wednesday, “and the energy aloft will finally push south of the Spaceport, bringing in drier mid-level air and lowering the coverage and strength of the diurnal thunderstorm activity.”

However, it was cautioned that the “continued southwest flow and moderate instability” meant that isolated showers and storms could not be entirely ruled out. There also existed a risk for Friday’s backup launch attempt that mid-level moisture might introduce a violation of the Thick Cloud Layer Rule.

Fueling of the Falcon 9 with liquid oxygen and a highly refined form of rocket-grade kerosene (known as “RP-1”) about 35 minutes prior to Thursday’s liftoff. The GPS III-05 payload went onto internal power at T-15 minutes. “Go Falcon, Go GPS,” came the call as B1062 went airborne precisely on time at 12:09 p.m. EDT, right on the opening of the 15-minute “launch window”.

GPS III-05 is encapsulated in its Falcon 9 payload fairing on 9 June. Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin

As previously reported by AmericaSpace, GPS III-05—named in honor of Apollo 11 Moonwalker Neil Armstrong—was delivered from prime contractor Lockheed Martin’s customized GPS Block III facility, near Denver, Colo., to the Space Coast Regional Airport in Titusville in early April, aboard a C-17 Globemaster III cargo transport.

It underwent functional testing and fueling at Astrotech Space Operations (ASO) in Titusville, before getting encapsulated in its bullet-like Falcon 9 payload shroud on 9 June. Three days later, B1062 was put through a customary Static Fire Test of its nine Merlin 1D+ engines on SLC-40, which allowed SpaceX to declare its readiness to support the 17 June launch.

In flying a second time, B1062 becomes the 28th Falcon 9 core to launch on more than one occasion since March 2017. And with the ASDS “Of Course I Still Love You” having just last week been despatched to the West Coast in support of future Falcon 9 launches out of Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., “Just Read the Instructions” now becomes the primary booster recovery vessel on the East Coast.

JRTI supported seven offshore Falcon 9 landings at Vandenberg between January 2017 and January 2019, before it was transferred to the Space Coast the following December in anticipation of an increased tempo of missions. Since last June and including today’s recovery of B1062, it has successfully recovered no fewer than 14 Falcon 9 cores.

Image Credit: SpaceX

Today’s mission was the fifth GPS Block III satellite to be launched since December 2018, as well as the fourth to ride a Falcon 9. It follows hard on the heels of last November’s GPS III-04 mission—which went on to complete its on-orbit checkout in record-breaking time—and two previous flights: GPS III-03 in June 2020 and GPS III-01 in December 2018. Another satellite in the series, GPS III-02 flew atop the final United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Medium booster in August 2019.   

But whereas each of SpaceX’s three prior GPS Block III missions used brand-new Falcon 9 cores, it was announced last September that GPS III-05 would employ a previously-flown booster. That booster turned out to be the “B1062” core, which also provided the first-stage muscle to lift GPS III-04 on its way last November. Accordingly, Thursday’s mission marked the first National Security Space Launch (NSSL) to fly a used rocket, with a Space Force expectation that using previously-flown boosters should save $64 million over the next couple of years.

“The GPS III program continues to make strides in modernizing the GPS constellation for the United States Space Force, maintaining the “gold standard” for position, navigation and timing,” said Col. Edward Byrne, Medium Earth Orbit Space Systems division chief. “SV-05 is not only the first-ever USSF satellite launched on a previously-flown booster, but also is the 24th Military-Code (M-Code) satellite introduced to our constellation, the last needed to bring M-Code to full operational capability.”

Photo: Jeff Seibert / AmericaSpace.com

Building upon a GPS Navstar heritage dating back to the 1970s, Block III got underway two decades ago and the Air Force awarded Lockheed Martin a $1.4 billion contract in May 2008 to develop the first pair of Block III satellites in what will eventually comprise a 32-satellite network, with the first launch initially targeted for 2014. However, payload difficulties ultimately pushed the program’s maiden flight back by almost five years and it did not launch until December 2018.

Following a Request for Proposals (RFP) issued by the Air Force in June 2017 for the fourth, fifth and sixth GPS Block III missions, SpaceX received the $290.5 million contract in March 2018. Although SpaceX delivered two Block III satellites to orbit in December 2018 and June 2020, both flew under separate contracts.

The first satellite to fly under the $290.5 million contract was last November’s GPS III-04, with Thursday’s GPS III-05 set to become the second. The sixth GPS Block III satellite is currently targeted for launch sometime next year. Contracts to procure long-lead-time components for GPS III-05 and GPS III-06 were awarded by the Air Force to Lockheed Martin way back in February 2013 and the firm was authorized to complete production on both satellites the following December.

GPS III-05 is the fifth Block III Global Positioning System satellite and the fourth to have been launched via a SpaceX Falcon 9. Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin

According to Lockheed Martin’s Chip Eschenfelder, in comments provided to AmericaSpace, GPS III-06 was declared “Available for Launch” (AFL) by the Space Force last 5 April, with an expectation that it would remain in storage in Denver until a precise launch date is identified and the satellite is “called-up” for launch. “We have not received that call-up yet,” Mr. Eschenfelder told us.

All told, three more GPS Block III satellites are currently completed and in AFL status. GPS III-07 was declared AFL on 27 May and GPS III-08 was declared AFL only last week, on 10 June. And GPS III-09 is not far behind, having undergone the integration of its Mission Module and Propulsion Core—a procedure known as “Core Mate”—to form the complete spacecraft on 12 May. With Core Mate thus completed, GPS III-09 will now proceed through its Environmental Testing phase.

Weighing 8,500 pounds (3,900 kg) and capable of a 15-year operational lifetime, these powerful satellites are built at Lockheed Martin’s customized GPS Block III facility near Denver, Colo. They are based upon the tried-and-true A2100 “bus”, whose modular framework produces 15 kilowatts of electricity via high-efficiency solar cells, radiation-cooled traveling-wave tube assemblies and improved heat-pipe design.

GPS III-05 headed to space atop Falcon 9. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace.com

The expansive operational lifetime of each Block III bird represents a 25-percent quantum leap over earlier GPS satellite capabilities, as well as 500 times greater transmitting power, improved navigational warfare abilities, three times better accuracy and an eightfold enhancement in anti-jamming functionality.

All told, this enables GPS Block III to shut off service to limited geographical locations, whilst maintaining uninterrupted provision for U.S. and allied forces. It features a cross-linked command-and-control architecture, which permits the entire “constellation” to be updated from a singular ground station. Furthermore, the satellites showcase a “spot-beam” capability for enhanced Military-Code (“M-Code”) coverage and better resistance to hostile jamming. These enhancements are expected to lead to improved accuracy and assured availability for military and civilian GPS users worldwide.

GPS III-05 as it will appear when fully operational in orbit. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin

“Although GPS is foremost a warfighting system, it is also worth mentioning how GPS is critical national infrastructure,” Mr. Eschenfelder explained. “More than four billion uers globally depend on GPS’ positioning, navigation and timing signals. In the U.S. alone, GPS is estimated to provide more than $300 billion in annual economic benefits. That adds up to more than $1.4 trillion since GPS’ inception. It’s no longer a matter of “Did you use GPS today?” It’s “How many times did you use GPS today?”

In keeping with tradition, the Block III birds are named for long-gone explorers, with the first and second honoring “Age of Sail” navigators Amerigo Vespucci and Ferdinand Magellan. The third satellite launched last June initially recognized Christopher Columbus, but was later renamed for the early 20th-century polar pioneer Matthew Henson. And last November’s GPS III-04 paid tribute to Sacagawea, a Lemhi Shoshone woman of Idaho, who at the age of just 16 aided the Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore the Louisiana Territory in 1803-1806.

GPS III-05 is named in honor of Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the Moon. Photo Credit: NASA

GPS III-05 bears the name of Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the Moon, with an expectation that the next four missions will also honor pioneers in the adjunct fields of aviation and spaceflight.

GPS III-06 will recognize Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, with GPS III-07 due to pay homage to America’s first female astronaut, Sally Ride. GPS III-08 will offer a deferential nod to “Hidden Figures” mathematician Katherine Johnson, whilst GPS III-09 looks set to be named for the first Asian-American astronaut, STS-51L hero Ellison Onizuka.

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