SpaceX launches first national security mission on reused commercial rocket

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 soars into the sky over Cape Canaveral Thursday with a GPS navigation satellite. Credit: Michael Cain / Spaceflight Now / Coldlife Photography

A fresh GPS navigation beacon destined to replace a nearly 17-year-old satellite rode into orbit from Cape Canaveral on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket Thursday, marking the first time risk-averse U.S. military space officials have agreed to launch a national security mission on a reused commercial booster.

After a smooth countdown, the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket lit its nine Merlin main engines and rumbled off pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 12:09:35 p.m. EDT (1609:35 GMT) Thursday.

The nine main engines fired for two-and-a-half minutes to propel the launcher beyond the speed of sound and through a thin layer of high clouds. The Falcon 9 arced toward the northeast as it climbed into the stratosphere, then the booster stage detached to give way to the rocket’s second stage engine.

The booster, designated B1062 in SpaceX’s inventory, previously launched and landed last November on a mission to carry the most recent GPS satellite to space. Making its second flight Thursday, the first stage flipped orientation to fly tail first, deployed four titanium grid fins to provide additional aerodynamic stability, and began a hypersonic descent back into the atmosphere.

An entry burn using three of the booster engines set up the rocket for a final landing burn with the center engine. Four carbon fiber landing legs unfolded at the base of the rocket as it settled near the bullseye on SpaceX’s football field-size drone ship “Just Read the Instructions” parked in the Atlantic Ocean around 400 miles (650 kilometers) northeast of Cape Canaveral.

The touchdown eight-and-a-half minutes after liftoff marked the 88th recovery of a Falcon rocket booster since 2015, but the mission had not yet achieved its primary objective.

The rocket’s second stage shut down as the Falcon 9 booster was on its final descent. The first of two upper stage engine firings required on Thursday’s mission placed the Space Force’s GPS 3 SV05 spacecraft into a preliminary parking orbit.

About 63 minutes into the mission, the upper stage’s kerosene-fueled engine reignited for a 44-second burn to reshape the rocket’s orbit to an ellipse stretching to an altitude of some 12,550 miles (20,200 kilometers) at its highest point.

After flying into communications range of Space Force ground stations in Hawaii and California, the rocket deployed the GPS satellite at 1:38 p.m. EDT (1738 GMT), nearly an hour-and-a-half after launch.

Lockheed Martin, which built the satellite, confirmed ground teams established contact with the new GPS spacecraft shortly after separation from the Falcon 9 rocket.

Over the next one-to-two weeks, the satellite will use its own orbit-raising engine to maneuver into a circular Medium Earth Orbit 12,550 miles above Earth at an inclination of 55 degrees. If all goes according to plan, the new satellite, nicknamed “Neil Armstrong,” could be transitioned to the control of Space Force operators within two weeks of launch, according to Col. Edward Byrne, senior materiel leader of the Medium Earth Orbit division at the Space and Missile Systems Center.

Including Thursday’s mission, SpaceX has launched 67 reused boosters with a flawless success record since March 2017. But Thursday’s launch was be the first time military officials entrusted a high-priority national security payload with a ride on a reused first stage.

The certification of reused Falcon 9 boosters for national security payloads could save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in the next few years. The Space Force has already achieved some savings by switching to reused Falcon 9 rockets on two GPS satellite launches, including Thursday’s flight.

The military also agreed to permit SpaceX to land its Falcon 9 boosters on four GPS missions, including two missions last year with brand new rockets.

The combined savings totaled $64.5 million over four missions, clearing the way for the launch of more national security payloads on previously-flown rockets in the coming years.

“In preparation for this first-time event, we’ve worked closely with SpaceX understand the refurbishment processes and are confident that this rocket is ready for its next flight,” said Walter Lauderdale, the deputy mission director and Falcon division chief at the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center.

A condensation cloud pours over SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket as it exceeds the speed of sound Thursday. Credit: Michael Cain / Spaceflight Now / Coldlife Photography

Lauderdale said the military has been working since 2016 on certifying the use of reused rocket hardware on national security satellite launches. SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, the Space Force’s two primary space launch providers, can propose to use previously-flown hardware on all national security missions under new contracts awarded last August.

So far, only SpaceX flies recycled rocket stages.

“Through continued partnership with SpaceX, we were able to reach an agreement to accelerate our use of previously-flown hardware for GPS missions,” Lauderdale told reporters in a teleconference Monday.

SpaceX has flown one of the Falcon 9 boosters in its fleet 10 times, and several others have completed five or more missions.

A military launch in 2019 of a Falcon Heavy rocket, which SpaceX created by bolting together three Falcon 9 cores, used two previously-flown side boosters. But that mission carried experimental technology demonstration satellites, not an operational payload like a GPS spacecraft.

Since agreeing to put the GPS 3 SV05 spacecraft on a reused booster, the Space Force formally certified SpaceX’s recovery and refurbishment processes. That non-recurring work will make it easier to regularly fly national security payloads on reused Falcon 9s in the future, Lauderdale said.

Technicians with the 5th Space Launch Squadron at Cape Canaveral follow SpaceX’s refurbishment of reused rockets. Compared to many commercial satellite operators, the Space Force performs additional oversight of its launch contractors due to the high cost and criticality of its payloads for U.S. national security.

“Working with SpaceX, we evaluate their inspection processes as well as what they have done to evaluate the hardware after it returns,” Lauderdale said.

The work included establishing how to evaluate the remaining life of a Falcon 9 booster by analyzing the stress it encounters during launch and re-entry back into the atmosphere. SpaceX’s busy launch schedule — this was the 19th Falcon 9 launch of the year — has given military officials plenty of data to crunch, and added to their confidence in launching the GPS 3 SV05 mission on a reused booster.

We evaluate all of that and compare that, in essence, to see how much of the life of any other components may have been consumed by what it’s seen during flight,” Lauderdale said. “So that flight data has been very helpful for us in assessing how much life is remaining.

The Space Force “will continue to evaluate that data as we look at potential for going beyond the second flight of a particular booster,” he said.

SpaceX’s drone ship will return to Port Canaveral with the Falcon 9 booster that landed after Thursday’s mission. The rocket will be refurbished for another launch.

Lauderdale said the booster will return to SpaceX’s rotation of reused rockets for use on commercial missions. The Space Force’s next GPS launch in 2022 will use a different previously-flown Falcon 9 rocket.

The launch Thursday used a brand new payload fairing, which protects the satellite during launch. Lauderdale said SpaceX could propose reusing the nose cone on future national security missions.

One of the two solar panels on the GPS 3 SV05 spacecraft is extended during ground testing at Lockheed Martin’s factory near Denver. Credit: Lockheed Martin

The GPS 3 SV05 satellite arrived on Florida’s Space Coast in April from its Lockheed Martin factory in Colorado. After delivery on an Air Force C-5 cargo plane, the spacecraft passed final checkouts and was fueled with hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide maneuvering propellants. Technicians then encapsulated the satellite inside the falcon 9 payload fairing and moved it to the launch pad for attachment to the rocket.

The fully fueled satellite weighed approximately 9,550 pounds, or 4,331 kilograms, at the time of launch, according to Byrne.

Three of the Space Force’s first four new-generation GPS 3-series navigation satellites have launched on Falcon 9 rockets from SpaceX. Another GPS 3 satellite lifted off on Delta 4 rocket from SpaceX rival United Launch Alliance.

The upgraded series of GPS 3 navigation satellites are designed for 15-year life spans, an improvement over the seven-and-a-half year and 12-year design lives of previous-generation GPS satellites.

Th GPS 3 satellites provide three times better accuracy and up to eight times improved anti-jamming capabilities over early GPS spacecraft, according to Lockheed Martin.

The GPS 3 satellites also introduce a new L-band civilian signal that is compatible with other international navigation satellite networks, such as Europe’s Galileo program. Combining signals from GPS, Galileo, and other navigation satellites can improve the precision of space-based position measurements.

The U.S. military uses GPS satellites for smart bombs and other precision-guided munitions. Troops rely on the network, which requires a minimum of 24 satellites for global coverage, to provide positioning data pole-to-pole.

With GPS 3 SV05, the GPS fleet with have 24 satellites capable of beaming an encrypted military-grade navigation signal known as M-code, enough for worldwide M-code coverage. The oldest GPS satellites still in the fleet are not outfitted with M-code.

The M-code signal allows GPS satellites to broadcast higher-power, jam-resistant signals over specific regions, such as a military theater or battlefield. The capability provides U.S. and allied forces with more reliable navigation services, and could also allow the military to intentionally disrupt or jam civilian-grade GPS signals in a particular region, while the M-code signal remains unimpeded.

L3Harris Technologies builds the navigation payloads for the GPS 3 satellites.

Civilians use the Global Positioning System on their smartphones, and airliners employ augmented GPS signals for precision landings and in-flight navigation. Banks use the timing signals from GPS satellites to time tag financial transactions.

Lockheed Martin has contracts with the Space Force to build up to 32 GPS 3-series and GPS 3 Follow-On satellites. Construction of the first eight GPS 3 satellites is covered in a 2008 contract valued at $3.6 billion.

Military officials were unable to provide an exact cost for the GPS 3 SV05 spacecraft, but the average cost of each satellite in the 2008 purchase amounts to nearly $500 million in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Byrne said earlier this week that the GPS 3 SV05 satellite will operate in Plane D, Slot 1, of the GPS constellation. That position is currently occupied by a GPS satellite that launched from Cape Canaveral on Nov. 6, 2004, on a Delta 2 rocket.

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