SpaceX closes out year with successful GPS satellite launch

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral on Sunday. Credit: SpaceX

A new era in GPS navigation launched Sunday, when a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket climbed into orbit with a Lockheed Martin-built satellite designed to beam higher-power positioning, navigation and timing signals around the world, providing military and civilian users with more accurate data that is more resistant to growing jamming threats.

The satellite successfully launched Sunday — known as GPS 3 SV01 and nicknamed “Vespucci” after Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci — is the first in a new generation of GPS navigation stations designed with improved services and longer lifetimes to ensure the U.S. military-run network remains available to troops, pilots, sailors and the public for decades to come.

The 229-foot-tall Falcon 9 launcher lifted off from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad at 8:51 a.m. EST (1351 GMT) Sunday after multiple delays over the last five days, including countdowns halted by SpaceX to investigate sensor trouble in the rocket’s first stage and by poor weather at the Florida spaceport.

But Sunday’s countdown appeared to go by the book, and SpaceX’s launch team gave approval to load super-chilled kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants into the two-stage rocket around 35 minutes before liftoff. In the final minutes of the countdown, the GPS satellite inside the Falcon 9’s nose cone was switched to internal battery power, and the rocket’s automated countdown sequencer computer thermally conditioned the booster’s main engines, completed a final preflight steering check and pressurized the propellant tanks for liftoff.

With a command from the Falcon 9’s on-board computer at T-minus 3 seconds, nine Merlin 1D engines flashed to life at the base of the rocket and powered the Falcon 9 into a clear morning sky for a thundering holiday weekend departure that marked the latest launch from Cape Canaveral in a calendar year since 1995.

“Merry Christmas, GPS,” a member of SpaceX’s launch team announced at liftoff.

The Falcon 9 flew northeast from Florida’s Space Coast, propelled by 1.7 million pounds of thrust in the first stage’s burn lasting nearly three minutes. The kerosene-fueled booster shut down and detached to drop into the Atlantic Ocean, as the second stage’s single Merlin engine fired up for the first of two burns to inject the newest GPS navigation satellite its targeted orbit.

Unlike SpaceX’s most recent missions, the first stage did not attempt a landing on Sunday’s flight because the GPS payload required the full capability of the rocket, leaving no fuel reserve for the booster to return to the ground intact. The Air Force decided to add extra fuel to give the spacecraft added “resiliency” and potentially a longer lifetime, and the military requires rockets carry national security satellites to de-orbit their spent upper stages if possible.

Those requirements added up to the Falcon 9 needing to commit more of its propellant to the primary mission with the GPS satellite. Read our earlier story for details on why SpaceX did not recover the first stage Sunday.

Air Force officials told reporters earlier this month that later Falcon 9 launches with GPS satellites might include first stage landings, but managers would not commit to such a decision before evaluating the rocket’s performance on Sunday’s mission.

SpaceX’s provided live on-board camera views from the upper stage as it climbed away from Earth, showing the curvature of the planet’s horizon against the blackness of space before the GPS 3 SV01 satellite separated nearly two hours after liftoff at an altitude of more than 5,400 miles (8,700 kilometers).

“Launch is always a monumental event, and especially so since this is the first GPS satellite of its generation launched on SpaceX’s first national security space mission,” said Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center and the Air Force’s program executive officer for space. “As more GPS 3 satellites join the constellation, it will bring better service at a lower cost to a technology that is now fully woven into the fabric of any modern civilization.

“It keeps GPS the gold standard for positioning, navigation, and timing information, giving assured access when and where it matters. This event was a capstone, but it doesn’t mean we’re done. We’re going to run a series of procedures for checkout and test to ensure everything on Vespucci functions as it was designed,” Thompson said in a statement.

Artist’s concept of a GPS 3 satellites in space. Credit: Lockheed Martin

U.S. military tracking data indicated the Falcon 9 placed the new GPS satellite in an orbit ranging between 740 miles (1,191 kilometers) and 12,550 miles (20,198 kilometers) in altitude, with an orbit inclined 55 degrees to the equatorial plane.

Those numbers were right on target for the launch, SpaceX’s first with a major U.S. national security payload, a milestone in the company’s years-long effort to gain traction in the military launch market.

Sunday’s launch marked a milestone for SpaceX and the Air Force

SpaceX has launched a handful of missions for U.S. national security customers, including a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office and an Air Force X-37B space plane in 2017, but those launches were booked separately from the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV, program. SpaceX’s Falcon rocket family and the Atlas and Delta rocket fleets operated by rival United Launch Alliance are currently certified by the Air Force to compete for EELV-class missions, which include the military’s most costly and highest-priority satellites.

The Air Force certified the Falcon 9 rocket for national security space launches in 2015 after extensive reviews of the vehicle’s design, reliability and performance, a multi-year process instigated, in part, by legal challenges by SpaceX founder Elon Musk to the Air Force’s sole-source contracting arrangement with ULA.

After getting the Falcon 9 rocket certified for national security launches in 2015, SpaceX won its first GPS 3 launch contract in 2016, an agreement the Air Force said then was valued at $82.7 million. The Air Force has since awarded SpaceX contracts for four additional GPS 3-series satellite launches in head-to-head competitions with ULA, which was the sole company certified to compete for EELV-class launches for a decade.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket was certified by the Air Force earlier this year, in the wake of the heavy-lifter’s first test flight in February. The Air Force has already awarded one national security launch contract to the Falcon Heavy since it became eligible for such missions, while ULA has won three new launch contracts in the military’s new era of competitive launch procurements.

ULA’s Delta 4 rocket is slated to launch the second GPS 3-series spacecraft — nicknamed “Magellan” — next summer, an Air Force spokesperson told Spaceflight Now last week. That is a few months later than the previously-planned launch date in April, a slip industry sources said is due to the Air Force’s preference to complete testing of GPS 3 SV01 in space before committing to launching the second GPS 3 model.

The launch of the GPS 3 SV02 satellite next year will mark the final flight of the Delta 4’s basic “single stick” configuration. ULA is retiring the smaller variants of the Delta 4 — but keeping the triple-body Delta 4-Heavy in service — and focusing flights in the next few years on the less expensive Atlas 5 rocket, while developing the next-generation Vulcan launcher with reusable Blue Origin BE-4 engines, which could eventually be retrieved and refurbished.

The third GPS 3-series spacecraft — christened “Columbus” — is assigned to fly on a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in December 2019, the Air Force said. Subsequent GPS launches are planned at intervals of as short as four-and-a-half months, but officials will decide on a launch schedule based on the needs and health of the overall GPS network, according to an Air Force spokesperson.

The GPS 3 SV01 navigation satellite separates from the Falcon 9’s upper stage in orbit. Credit: SpaceX

In total, SpaceX has won contracts to launch five of the first six GPS 3-series satellites on Falcon 9 rockets. Lockheed Martin is under contract to build up to 32 GPS 3 satellites, beginning with a block of 10 spacecraft planned for launch through the early-to-mid-2020s, and followed by a batch of up to 22 follow-on GPS 3F satellites scheduled to launch beginning in 2026.

Air Force officials said some of the GPS satellites could launch on Falcon 9 rockets with previously-flown boosters, which commercial satellite owners and NASA have used to receive bargains on launch costs. Flying with previously-used rockets also helps ease burdens on SpaceX’s manufacturing line and supply chain.

“We absolutely intend to be able to certify previously-flown launch vehicles,” said Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of the Launch Enterprise Systems Directorate at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center. “We are working with SpaceX to go through and understand what’s different, and what’s better, and what do we have to watch out for when you start going with previously-flown hardware. You’ve got all the return, the checkout and all that stuff. SpaceX has a lot of experience doing this. We learned a lot with them, and we’re trying to put together a plan to actually help us learn as well on doing that, but it’s a process. We’re going to go through and do this in a very deliberate way to make sure the satellite makes orbit on every launch vehicle we procure.”

SpaceX has launched recycled rockets on orbital missions 18 times, all successfully, a tally that includes a pair of previously-flown boosters on the inaugural launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket in February.

New GPS satellite will replace 21-year-old navigation craft

Lockheed Martin said after Sunday’s launch that ground controllers at the company’s launch and checkout facility in Denver established contact with the GPS 3 SV01 satellite to begin putting the craft through in-orbit testing that could last more than a year.

The GPS 3 SV01 spacecraft is set to reach a circular orbit at the GPS fleet’s altitude around 10 days after launch, Whitney said. Seven firings by the satellite’s liquid-fueled main engine are planned to circularize the craft’s orbit at an altitude of 12,550 miles, followed by deployments of the satellite’s solar arrays and antennas.

Once it joins the rest of the GPS constellation, the new satellite will undergo six-to-nine months of checkouts to verify the health of key spacecraft systems, and test the functionality of its navigation instrumentation provided by Harris Corp. Another testing phase to validate the new GPS satellite’s compatibility with the rest of the navigation network will take an additional six-to-nine months, according to Col. Steve Whitney, director of the Global Positioning Systems Directorate at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center.

When GPS 3 SV01 is ready for operational service, it will replace SVN 43 in Plane F, Slot 6, of the GPS fleet. The Air Force currently operates 31 GPS satellites, including spares, spread among six orbital planes to ensure the network provides uninterrupted global positioning, navigation and timing services to military and civilian users.

SVN 43 has outlived its seven-and-a-half-year design lifetime since its launch as the GPS 2R-2 satellite aboard a Delta 2 rocket in July 1997. The GPS 3 SV01 satellite will be known to GPS users as SVN 74 when it becomes operational, Whitney said.

“These GPS 3 satellites will introduce modernized capabilities and signals that are three times more accurate and up to eight times more powerful than previous generations,” Whitney said. “They also broadcast a signal compatible with other global navigation satellite systems, allowing users around the globe the ability ro receive and use the signals from multiple constellations, thus maximizing availability and accuracy of navigation signals worldwide.”

The GPS network currently provides users with position estimates with an accuracy of around 50 centimeters, or about 20 inches, Whitney said, assuming receivers are not contending with terrain, trees, or buildings.

The last spacecraft in the previous series of Boeing-made GPS spacecraft launched in 2016, and Whitney said the GPS fleet “remains healthy, stable and robust” with 31 active satellites.

GPS 3’s first launch is four years behind schedule

The Air Force hoped to launch the first GPS 3-series satellite in 2014 when the Pentagon approved full development of the multibillion-dollar program in 2008, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

Officials blamed technical issues with the satellites’ navigation payloads for much of the four-year delay. The navigation payloads consist of ultra-precise rubidium atomic clocks, radiation-hardened processors and powerful L-band transmitters, according to Harris Corp.

The U.S. Air Force’s first upgraded GPS 3-series navigation satellite undergoes electromagnetic testing at Lockheed Martin’s factory in Denver. Credit: Lockheed Martin

The new features on the GPS 3-series satellites include the addition of a fourth civilian L-band signal — known as L1C — designed to be interoperable with other global navigation satellite fleets. Europe’s Galileo, China’s Beidou, and Japan’s QZSS navigation satellite networks provide a similar signal, allowing users to combine navigation fixes with satellites from different fleets, generating a more accurate position estimate.

Just as more satellites give users more accurate position estimates, the stacking of signals at different frequencies allow receivers to sort out distortions caused as the radio waves pass through the upper atmosphere, further refining the accuracy of GPS navigation.

Contributors to the GPS 3 delays included issues with failed and damaged capacitors, components which store and release electrical charges in the satellites’ navigation payloads, according to a GAO report last year.

“According to program officials, each satellite has over 500 capacitors of the same design that experienced failures,” the GAO wrote in a May 2017 report to Congress.

Officials discovered that the subcontractor which supplied the capacitors did not qualify the components for use in the GPS satellites. Engineers then invalidated the results of reliability testing of the parts before the capacitors were finally declared fit for the GPS satellites.

But GPS 3 SV01 is still fitted with the suspect capacitors, according to the GAO.

“The Air Force decided to assume the risk of capacitor failure and proceed with the first satellite as-is, fitted with capacitors mostly from the questionable lot,” the GAO wrote last year. “The program replaced the suspect capacitors in the second and third satellites, the only other satellites that had the suspect parts.”

GPS 3 brings upgrades to global navigation fleet

The GPS 3-series satellites are built to operate at least 15 years, and their higher-power transmitters make their navigation signals less susceptible to jamming.

“The big things here we’re going to see with GPS 3, we’re going to see an increase in power,” Whitney said. “We’ve put a requirement on there to produce stronger signals to try to fight through some of that jamming that we see, particularly on our military signals. We’ve also put on a requirement for increased accuracy. So the user will eventually see that when it comes online. We’ve added some additional civil signals.”

Like the previous line of GPS 2F satellites, the GPS 3-series spacecraft will 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.

“GPS 3 satellites will also bring the full capability to use M-code and increase the anti-jam resilience in support of our warfighters and allies,” Whitney said.

The M-code is intended to give U.S. and allied forces an advantage on the battlefield, allowing GPS satellites to beam higher-power, jam-resistant signals to specific regions. It could also give the military the ability to disrupt or jam civilian signals in a particular region without degrading the M-code signals, giving friendly forces an advantage.

“A long time ago, there used to be a capability for what we called then selective availability, where we could degrade, or not put out as accurate of a civil signal,” he said. “That capability no longer exists within the system, but we have gone to this new M-code signal for our military users, which is the same frequency but spectrally separated a little bit. That allows us to do special things for them.”

Even with the first GPS 3 satellite’s launch, all of the upgrades coming in the new generation of navigation satellites will not be available to military and civilian users until developers finish work on a modernized ground control system to make use of the improvements.

Raytheon is charged with developing the Next Generation Operational Control Segment. Better known as OCX, the command and control system is projected to cost up to $6 billion — $2 billion or more over budget — and is at least five years behind schedule. The full version of OCX, known as Block 1, likely won’t be ready until 2021 or 2022, and only then will the full potential of the GPS 3 satellites be realized, Whitney told reporters Dec. 14.

The GAO found that “poor acquisition decisions and a slow recognition of development problems” caused the delays in the new GPS ground command and control system, which is backward-compatible with older GPS satellites and is needed to process the M-code military signal and the new interoperable L1C civilian signal. The Air Force has an initial version of the OCX command and control system — named Block 0 — ready for handle the launch and in-orbit checkout of the GPS 3 satellites, and Whitney said the Air Force is working on an interim upgrade to the existing GPS control system to allow the M-code signal to begin testing with military units in 2020, 15 years after the launch of the first satellite with M-code.

Lawmakers and the GAO have also raised concerns about the readiness of user receivers outfitted to handle the M-code signal, and each new GPS capability will only have global reach when it is deployed on 24 satellites.

“Full M-code capability — which includes both the ability to broadcast a signal via satellites and a ground system and user equipment to receive the signal — will take at least a decade once the services are able to deploy MGUE (military GPS user equipment) receivers in sufficient numbers,” the GAO wrote in a review of the GPS 3 program last year.

Despite the delays and technical hurdles, more users than ever rely on GPS satellites, and the network’s reach extends around the world, infiltrating numerous facets of society and billions of lives, with applications ranging from banking to online dating.

“For the civilian user, GPS has become a pallet on which to create and innovate,” said Johnathon Caldwell, Lockheed Martin’s Vice President of navigation systems. “I don’t think five years ago people thought you’d have your ride-hailing apps, or you’d be able to grab a scooter and get around some of the big cities differently. You wouldn’t see the productivity in America’s heartland without the innovations in farming that have come about.

“The world is changing rapidly,” Caldwell said. “We’re talking about autonomous cars. How can we be more fuel-efficient with airplanes, with automobiles? How can we be better stewards of our environment? GPS, and these new advanced capabilities, give people an opportunity to do creative things and be innovative.”

SpaceX launched 21 rockets this year

With the GPS launch Sunday, SpaceX closed out 2018 with its 21st successful flight of the year, breaking a record for the company’s highest annual launch rate previously set last year with 18.

The launches this year included six missions from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and 15 from Florida’s Space Coast — 12 from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and three from nearby pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

A highlight of the year for SpaceX was the maiden test flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket, made by combining three Falcon 9 rocket boosters together to generate more than 5 million pounds of thrust. The Falcon Heavy’s debut Feb. 6 sent a Tesla Roadster from Musk’s collection into the solar system on a trajectory that reaches further from the sun than the orbit of Mars.

SpaceX launched three resupply missions to the International Space Station, three missions carrying Iridium communications satellites into orbit, and eight flights with geostationary communications payloads. Other missions in 2018 launched NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite — an observatory built to detect planets around other stars — and Earth observation satellites for Spain and Argentina.

SpaceX plans around 18 launches next year, according to Hans Koenigsmann, the company’s vice president of build and flight reliability. Big launches next year include the first two test flights of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon human-rated capsule, with astronauts set to ride the spacecraft to the International Space Station as soon as mid-2019.

The company’s 2019 launch schedule is set to begin Jan. 7 with the launch of a Falcon 9 rocket and a batch of 10 next-generation Iridium voice and data relay satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.