WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force sent the fifth GPS III satellite into orbit June 17, the last piece needed for a constellation that will one day provide a more secure positioning signal for the military.
The satellite, the first heavy national security payload with a cost-saving reusable booster, had a 12,550-mile journey with an onboard liquid apogee engine to reach its orbit. It will go through two weeks of on-orbit testing and checkout, and is expected to enter operational use in a few months, where it’s advanced capabilities will contribute to the full GPS constellation.
The launch from Cape Canaveral on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket happened only seven months after the last launch of a GPS III satellite, an accelerated timeline that the Space Force said shows its progress in speeding up launches in order to respond to potential threats quickly.
The reusable booster, a first for a National Security Space Launch, saved the government $64.5 million, according to the Space Force.
“Today’s launch culminated our work to use previously-flown hardware for NSSL missions,” said Walter Lauderdale, who leads the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Falcon work. “Our partnership with SpaceX enabled us to complete this huge milestone well in advance of our first Phase 2 NSSL launch, enhancing flexibility and resiliency for National Security Space missions.”
Space Force officials hailed the event as further progress in its ability to quickly launch new satellites into orbit.
“This successful launch occurred just seven months after SV04 and the team worked concurrent operations between both SVs during the dynamic situation presented by COVID-19,” said Cordell DeLaPena Jr., the program executive officer for SMC’s Space Production Corps.
The Lockheed Martin-built GPS III satellites offer advanced capabilities over their predecessors, offering three times as much accuracy and eight times the anti-jamming capability. GPS III satellites can transmit M-code, a more secure anti-jamming positioning signal for military use. The fifth GPS III satellite is the 24th space vehicle in the constellation that is enabled with M-code and the last one needed to achieve full operational capability for the space segment. The military still has work to do to make M-code available through ground systems and other equipment.
Nathan Strout was the staff editor at C4ISRNET, where he covered the intelligence community.