SpaceX launches most powerful GPS satellite ever built

It marks company's first Pentagon-sanctioned national security mission

Photo: Lockheed Martin An artist's impression of a Lockheed Martin GPS 3 navigation satellite in orbit.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket roared to life and streaked away from Cape Canaveral early Sunday carrying the first in a powerful new generation of GPS navigation satellites into orbit. It was the company's 21st launch this year and its first Pentagon-sanctioned national security mission, marking a significant achievement for Elon Musk's privately-held company, which has been trying to break into the military space launch market for years.

Propelled by 1.2m pounds of thrust from its nine first stage engines, the 229-foot-tall rocket lifted off at 8:51 a.m. EST, climbing straight away from launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Its payload, the first GPS 3 satellite from Lockheed Martin, separated from the rocket one hour and 59 minutes later. SpaceX will now have to launch another four US Air Force’s GPS 3 satellites in addition to today’s mission.

The launching, nevertheless, came five days late because of a last-minute problem with first stage propellant temperatures Tuesday and stormy weather Thursday. High winds forced another 24-hour delay Saturday, but conditions were ideal Sunday and the rocket put on a spectacular show as it raced away to the northeast through a cloudless sky.

Furthermore, in a departure from what has become normal practice for SpaceX, the first stage did not attempt to fly itself back to Cape Canaveral or to an off-shore drone ship. The GPS satellite was loaded with more fuel than usual, increasing the load on the Falcon 9 and requiring more first stage performance. The rocket did not have enough propellant left over to attempt a landing. because of mission requirements for lofting the 4,400-kilogram satellite into a highly elliptical orbit. From there the satellite will circularise into a medium Earth orbit, joining the US’s GPS constellation of 31 older satellites delivering positioning, navigation, and timing services to more than four billion users. But what differs it from the others is that the new GPS 3 satellite will broadcast a stronger signal to counter electronic jamming. It will also be the first GPS satellite to broadcast four civil signals, and the first to do launch and control checkout with the Air Force’s new ground control system: OCX Block 0.

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