WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force launched a fourth GPS III satellite Nov. 5 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
The satellite is now climbing to its assigned orbit — 12,550 miles above Earth — using its onboard liquid apogee engines.
“The launch of GPS III SV04 is a testament to [the Space and Missile Systems Center’s] ability to rapidly and safely deliver new capabilities on orbit,” said Cordell DeLaPena, Air Force program executive officer for SMC’s Space Production Corps. “At SMC, we are proud to deliver our fourth GPS III satellite and will continue to operate at an accelerated pace to enhance the capabilities of the billions of users worldwide.”
SpaceX was once again able to recover their first stage booster following separation, landing it on the company’s “Of Course I Still Love You” drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. That booster and others will be refurbished and reused for future GPS launches by SpaceX in 2021.
“I’m proud of my team’s 83rd successful National Security Space Launch and look forward to our future missions with SpaceX,” said Col. Robert Bongiovi, SMC’s Launch Enterprise director. “Ultimately, our ability to embrace innovation with our launch providers advances warfighter’s capabilities while lowering costs to the U.S. Government and its taxpayers.”
Lockheed Martin engineers and operators will now begin the approximately one-month on-orbit checkout procedures. The satellite is expected to be ready for operational use and join the constellation of 31 GPS satellites already on orbit in a few months.
This new generation of GPS space vehicles brings increased capabilities to the user, with SMC claiming the satellites will provide three times greater accuracy and up to eight times improved anti-jamming capabilities over their predecessors. Once operational, this will be the 23rd M-Code-capable space vehicle in the GPS constellation, providing a more robust anti-jamming and anti-spoofing GPS signal to military users.
But military users aren’t the only ones to benefit from the new generation of GPS satellites. GPS III satellites also include a new L1C civil signal, providing improved civilian user connectivity that is compatible with Europe’s Galileo constellation, according to Lockheed Martin.
The GPS III Follow On satellites, also being built by Lockheed Martin, will bring more advanced features. The GPS IIIF satellites will feature a fully digital navigation payload courtesy of L3Harris Technologies, an accuracy-enhancing laser retroreflector array, a search and rescue payload, and an improved ability to shape beams to provide an enhanced regional military protection capability.
The GPS IIIF program passed its Milestone C in July, clearing the way for production to begin.
“So many people rely on GPS every day. Continuing to invest in GPS by adding new capabilities like those coming with GPS III/IIIF will ensure GPS remains the world’s ‘gold standard’ for PNT [positioning, navigation and timing] and just makes sense,” said Tonya Ladwig, Lockheed Martin’s acting vice president for navigation systems.
Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.