SpaceX targets September launch of military GPS satellite for US Space Force

On July 14, just two weeks after the successful SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of the Lockheed Martin-built GPS III Space Vehicle 03 (SV03) satellite for the United States Space Force, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station took delivery of the GPS III Space Vehicle 04 (SV04) GPS satellite from The U.S. Space Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC). The GPS III SV04 satellite, like its predecessor GPS III SV03, is scheduled to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 no earlier than Septemeber.

The U.S. Space Force Space and Missile Systems Center successfully delivered the fourth Global Positioning System (GPS) III satellite to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, July 14. (Courtesy photo U.S. Space force)
In a statement provided by the U.S. Air Force, SMC’s Medium Earth Orbit Space Systems Division chief, Col. Edward Byrne, said that “the delivery of SV04 marks the start of our third GPS III launch campaign on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and brings us another step closer in advancing the GPS constellation with more capable satellites.” The SpaceX Falcon 9 previously lifted the GPS III SV01 and SV03 satellites to orbit in December 2018 and June 2020 respectively.

According to Lockheed Martin, the GPS III series of satellites is “three times more accurate than the current satellite, the signals will be more powerful, and up to eight times improved jamming resistance and availability for critical missions worldwide.” The U.S. Space Force aims to improve “positioning, navigation, and timing signals for more than four billion military, civil and commercial users” with the full fleet of GPS III satellites. The GPS III SV04 satellite is expected to join a constellation of a planned 31 GPS satellites built by Lockheed Martin for the US Space Force.

The payload fairing with GPS III SV03 encapsulated inside is mated with the SpaceX Falcon 9 in June 2020. (Photo courtesy of SpaceX)

In an ongoing effort to upgrade GPS Ground Operational Control Systems (OCS), the U.S. Space Force authorized the Contingency Operations (COps) upgrade. The upgrade fully enables an ultra-secure and jam-resistant Military Code, or M-Code, encrypted GPS signal to be used with the GPS III series of satellites. The upgrade increases secure communication access for the armed forces with enhanced protection from spoofing, falsely identifying signals sent from malicious sources as ones sent from trusted sources.

In a statement provided by Lockheed Martin following the successful launch of the GPS III SV03 satellite in June 2020, Tonya Ladwig, Lockheed Martin’s Acting Vice President for Navigation Systems, stated that “As a nation, we use GPS signals every day — they time-stamp all our financial transactions, they make aviation safe, they make precision farming possible, and so much more. GPS has become a critical part of our national infrastructure.” She explained further that “continued investment in modernizing GPS – updating technology, improving its capabilities – is well worth it.”

Falcon 9 B1060 first and second stages seen in the Horizontal Integration Facility fully integrated with the GPS III SV03 satellite payload ahead of rolling out to SpaceX’s LC-40 pad on June 29th, 2020. (SpaceX)

The SGPS III SV04 satellite is now entering into the final stages of pre-launch preparations. At the Astrotech Space Operations facility in Florida, the satellite is currently undergoing functionality testing, propellant loading, and will eventually be encapsulated into a protective Falcon 9 payload fairing. Following successful encapsulation, the satellite will be integrated with the Falcon 9 first and second stages at the Horizontal Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of the U.S. Space Force GPS III SV04 satellite is expected to take place from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station no earlier than September 2020.

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Jamie Groh: Space Reporter.
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