The U.S. Space Force will reschedule the April 29 launch of the third GPS III satellite as a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Space and Missile Systems Center announced April 7.
“We do not make this decision lightly, however, given our GPS constellation remains strong, we have the opportunity to make a deliberate decision to maintain our mission assurance posture, without introducing additional health risk to personnel or mission risk to the launch,” said Lt. Gen. John F. Thompson, the head of the Space and Missile Systems Center and the program executive officer for space. “As the COVID-19 pandemic is a threat to national security, likewise, rescheduling the launch is in the interest of national security.”
The National Reconnaissance Office's Don't Stop Me Now mission is on pause, though it still anticipates launching into orbit aboard an Electron rocket from Rocket Lab's New Zealand launch site.
According to Thompson, the GPS constellation is currently in a healthy position with 31 satellites in orbit, allowing the Space Force to delay the launch without resulting in gaps to coverage or capability. The second GPS III satellite was officially declared ready for military use March 24. GPS III satellites have three times better accuracy and up to eight times improved anti-jamming capability over previous versions.
According to the SMC press release, the launch will now take place no earlier than June 30 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, with SMC reevaluating the situation in May. The payload will be the second mission in the National Security Space Launch program to take place aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
The Space Force said it is taking efforts to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19 while ensuring it is able to launch three GPS III satellites in 2020 as planned.
“Some of the steps include procedural and facility modifications at the GPS III Launch and Checkout Capability (LCC) operations center and reducing the onsite crew size to provide adequate physical distancing, per CDC guidelines,” said Medium Earth Orbit Space Systems Division Chief Col. Edward Byrne. “Once these efforts are completed, and the crews have rehearsed and are deemed proficient and ready to execute under these modified conditions, we fully intend to return to our launch cadence for deploying GPS III satellites.”
The Space Force was able to successfully complete its first launch ever March 26 from Cape Canaveral while reducing the number of on site personnel and practicing social distancing.
The Space Force did not immediately respond as to whether the United Launch Alliance’s late May launch of the secretive X-37B space plane would also be delayed. ULA announced April 6 that an employee at one of their Denver facilities had tested positive for COVID-19, although they anticipated no impact on their manifest.