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SpaceX closes out year with successful GPS satellite launch – Spaceflight Now

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

A brand new period in GPS navigation launched Sunday, when a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket climbed into orbit with a Lockheed Martin-built satellite tv for pc designed to beam higher-power positioning, navigation and timing alerts all over the world, offering army and civilian customers with extra correct knowledge that’s extra proof against rising jamming threats.

The satellite tv for pc efficiently launched Sunday — often called GPS Three SV01 and nicknamed “Vespucci” after Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci — is the primary in a brand new era of GPS navigation stations designed with improved companies and longer lifetimes to make sure the U.S. military-run community stays accessible to troops, pilots, sailors and the general public for many years to come back.

The 229-foot-tall Falcon 9 launcher lifted off from Cape Canaveral’s Complicated 40 launch pad at eight:51 a.m. EST (1351 GMT) Sunday after a number of delays over the past 5 days, together with countdowns halted by SpaceX to research sensor hassle within the rocket’s first stage and by poor climate on the Florida spaceport.

However Sunday’s countdown appeared to go by the e book, and SpaceX’s launch workforce gave approval to load super-chilled kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants into the two-stage rocket round 35 minutes earlier than liftoff. Within the closing minutes of the countdown, the GPS satellite tv for pc contained in the Falcon 9’s nostril cone was switched to inside battery energy, and the rocket’s automated countdown sequencer laptop thermally conditioned the booster’s primary engines, accomplished a closing preflight steering examine and pressurized the propellant tanks for liftoff.

With a command from the Falcon 9’s on-board laptop at T-minus Three seconds, 9 Merlin 1D engines flashed to life on the base of the rocket and powered the Falcon 9 into a transparent morning sky for a thundering vacation weekend departure that marked the most recent launch from Cape Canaveral in a calendar yr since 1995.

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

The Falcon 9 flew northeast from Florida’s House Coast, propelled by 1.7 million kilos of thrust within the first stage’s burn lasting practically three minutes. The kerosene-fueled booster shut down and indifferent to drop into the Atlantic Ocean, because the second stage’s single Merlin engine fired up for the primary of two burns to inject the most recent GPS navigation satellite tv for pc its focused orbit.

In contrast to SpaceX’s most up-to-date missions, the primary stage didn’t try a touchdown on Sunday’s flight as a result of the GPS payload required the complete functionality of the rocket, leaving no gas reserve for the booster to return to the bottom intact. The Air Pressure determined so as to add further gas to offer the spacecraft added “resiliency” and doubtlessly an extended lifetime, and the army requires rockets carry nationwide safety satellites to de-orbit their spent higher phases if attainable.

These necessities added as much as the Falcon 9 needing to commit extra of its propellant to the first mission with the GPS satellite tv for pc. Read our earlier story for particulars on why SpaceX didn’t get better the primary stage Sunday.

Air Pressure officers instructed reporters earlier this month that later Falcon 9 launches with GPS satellites would possibly embody first stage landings, however managers wouldn’t decide to such a call earlier than evaluating the rocket’s efficiency on Sunday’s mission.

SpaceX’s supplied stay on-board digital camera views from the higher stage because it climbed away from Earth, displaying the curvature of the planet’s horizon in opposition to the blackness of area earlier than the GPS Three SV01 satellite tv for pc separated practically two hours after liftoff at an altitude of greater than 5,400 miles (eight,700 kilometers).

“Launch is at all times a monumental occasion, and particularly so since that is the primary GPS satellite tv for pc of its era launched on SpaceX’s first nationwide safety area mission,” stated Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of the Air Pressure’s House and Missile Programs Heart and the Air Pressure’s program govt officer for area. “As extra GPS Three satellites be part of the constellation, it is going to deliver higher service at a decrease value to a expertise that’s now totally woven into the material of any fashionable civilization.

“It retains GPS the gold normal for positioning, navigation, and timing info, giving assured entry when and the place it issues. This occasion was a capstone, nevertheless it doesn’t imply we’re achieved. We’re going to run a collection of procedures for checkout and check to make sure all the pieces on Vespucci features because it was designed,” Thompson stated in an announcement.

Artist’s idea of a GPS Three satellites in area. Credit score: Lockheed Martin

U.S. army monitoring knowledge indicated the Falcon 9 positioned the brand new GPS satellite tv for pc in an orbit ranging between 740 miles (1,191 kilometers) and 12,550 miles (20,198 kilometers) in altitude, with an orbit inclined 55 levels to the equatorial airplane.

These numbers had been proper on course for the launch, SpaceX’s first with a serious U.S. nationwide safety payload, a milestone within the firm’s years-long effort to realize traction within the army launch market.

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

SpaceX has launched a handful of missions for U.S. nationwide safety prospects, together with a labeled payload for the Nationwide Reconnaissance Workplace and an Air Pressure X-37B area airplane in 2017, however these launches had been booked individually from the Air Pressure’s Developed Expendable Launch Automobile, or EELV, program. SpaceX’s Falcon rocket household and the Atlas and Delta rocket fleets operated by rival United Launch Alliance are at present licensed by the Air Pressure to compete for EELV-class missions, which embody the army’s most expensive and highest-priority satellites.

The Air Pressure licensed the Falcon 9 rocket for nationwide safety area launches in 2015 after intensive critiques of the car’s design, reliability and efficiency, a multi-year course of instigated, partially, by authorized challenges by SpaceX founder Elon Musk to the Air Pressure’s sole-source contracting association with ULA.

After getting the Falcon 9 rocket licensed for nationwide safety launches in 2015, SpaceX gained its first GPS Three launch contract in 2016, an settlement the Air Pressure stated then was valued at $82.7 million. The Air Pressure has since awarded SpaceX contracts for 4 extra GPS Three-series satellite tv for pc launches in head-to-head competitions with ULA, which was the only real firm licensed to compete for EELV-class launches for a decade.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket was licensed by the Air Pressure earlier this yr, within the wake of the heavy-lifter’s first check flight in February. The Air Pressure has already awarded one nationwide safety launch contract to the Falcon Heavy because it turned eligible for such missions, whereas ULA has gained three new launch contracts within the army’s new period of aggressive launch procurements.

ULA’s Delta Four rocket is slated to launch the second GPS Three-series spacecraft — nicknamed “Magellan” — subsequent summer season, an Air Pressure spokesperson instructed Spaceflight Now final week. That may be a few months later than the previously-planned launch date in April, a slip trade sources stated is because of the Air Pressure’s choice to finish testing of GPS Three SV01 in area earlier than committing to launching the second GPS Three mannequin.

The launch of the GPS Three SV02 satellite tv for pc subsequent yr will mark the ultimate flight of the Delta Four’s primary “single stick” configuration. ULA is retiring the smaller variants of the Delta Four — however protecting the triple-body Delta Four-Heavy in service — and focusing flights within the subsequent few years on the inexpensive Atlas 5 rocket, whereas growing the next-generation Vulcan launcher with reusable Blue Origin BE-Four engines, which may finally be retrieved and refurbished.

The third GPS Three-series spacecraft — christened “Columbus” — is assigned to fly on a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in December 2019, the Air Pressure stated. Subsequent GPS launches are deliberate at intervals of as quick as four-and-a-half months, however officers will resolve on a launch schedule based mostly on the wants and well being of the general GPS community, in response to an Air Pressure spokesperson.

The GPS Three SV01 navigation satellite tv for pc separates from the Falcon 9’s higher stage in orbit. Credit score: SpaceX

In whole, SpaceX has gained contracts to launch 5 of the primary six GPS Three-series satellites on Falcon 9 rockets. Lockheed Martin is beneath contract to construct as much as 32 GPS Three satellites, starting with a block of 10 spacecraft deliberate for launch via the early-to-mid-2020s, and adopted by a batch of as much as 22 follow-on GPS 3F satellites scheduled to launch starting in 2026.

Air Pressure officers stated among the GPS satellites may launch on Falcon 9 rockets with previously-flown boosters, which business satellite tv for pc homeowners and NASA have used to obtain bargains on launch prices. Flying with previously-used rockets additionally helps ease burdens on SpaceX’s manufacturing line and provide chain.

“We completely intend to have the ability to certify previously-flown launch automobiles,” stated Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of the Launch Enterprise Programs Directorate on the Air Pressure’s House and Missile Programs Heart. “We’re working with SpaceX to undergo and perceive what’s totally different, and what’s higher, and what do we have now to be careful for while you begin going with previously-flown . You’ve bought all of the return, the checkout and all that stuff. SpaceX has plenty of expertise doing this. We realized loads with them, and we’re making an attempt to place collectively a plan to truly assist us be taught as properly on doing that, nevertheless it’s a course of. We’re going to undergo and do that in a really deliberate approach to verify the satellite tv for pc makes orbit on each launch car we procure.”

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

New GPS satellite tv for pc will substitute 21-year-old navigation craft

Lockheed Martin stated after Sunday’s launch that floor controllers on the firm’s launch and checkout facility in Denver established contact with the GPS Three SV01 satellite tv for pc to start placing the craft via in-orbit testing that would final greater than a yr.

The GPS Three SV01 spacecraft is about to succeed in a round orbit on the GPS fleet’s altitude round 10 days after launch, Whitney stated. Seven firings by the satellite tv for pc’s liquid-fueled primary engine are deliberate to circularize the craft’s orbit at an altitude of 12,550 miles, adopted by deployments of the satellite tv for pc’s photo voltaic arrays and antennas.

As soon as it joins the remainder of the GPS constellation, the brand new satellite tv for pc will bear six-to-nine months of checkouts to confirm the well being of key spacecraft programs, and check the performance of its navigation instrumentation supplied by Harris Corp. One other testing section to validate the brand new GPS satellite tv for pc’s compatibility with the remainder of the navigation community will take a further six-to-nine months, in response to Col. Steve Whitney, director of the International Positioning Programs Directorate on the Air Pressure’s House and Missile Programs Heart.

When GPS Three SV01 is prepared for operational service, it is going to substitute SVN 43 in Aircraft F, Slot 6, of the GPS fleet. The Air Pressure at present operates 31 GPS satellites, together with spares, unfold amongst six orbital planes to make sure the community supplies uninterrupted world positioning, navigation and timing companies to army and civilian customers.

SVN 43 has outlived its seven-and-a-half-year design lifetime since its launch because the GPS 2R-2 satellite tv for pc aboard a Delta 2 rocket in July 1997. The GPS Three SV01 satellite tv for pc shall be recognized to GPS customers as SVN 74 when it turns into operational, Whitney stated.

“These GPS Three satellites will introduce modernized capabilities and alerts which are thrice extra correct and as much as eight instances extra highly effective than earlier generations,” Whitney stated. “In addition they broadcast a sign suitable with different world navigation satellite tv for pc programs, permitting customers across the globe the power ro obtain and use the alerts from a number of constellations, thus maximizing availability and accuracy of navigation alerts worldwide.”

The GPS community at present supplies customers with place estimates with an accuracy of round 50 centimeters, or about 20 inches, Whitney stated, assuming receivers are usually not contending with terrain, bushes, or buildings.

The final spacecraft within the earlier collection of Boeing-made GPS spacecraft launched in 2016, and Whitney stated the GPS fleet “stays wholesome, secure and sturdy” with 31 energetic satellites.

GPS Three’s first launch is 4 years delayed

The Air Pressure hoped to launch the primary GPS Three-series satellite tv for pc in 2014 when the Pentagon accepted full growth of the multibillion-dollar program in 2008, in response to a Authorities Accountability Workplace report.

Officers blamed technical points with the satellites’ navigation payloads for a lot of the four-year delay. The navigation payloads encompass ultra-precise rubidium atomic clocks, radiation-hardened processors and highly effective L-band transmitters, in response to Harris Corp.

The U.S. Air Pressure’s first upgraded GPS Three-series navigation satellite tv for pc undergoes electromagnetic testing at Lockheed Martin’s manufacturing facility in Denver. Credit score: Lockheed Martin

The brand new options on the GPS Three-series satellites embody the addition of a fourth civilian L-band sign — often called L1C — designed to be interoperable with different world navigation satellite tv for pc fleets. Europe’s Galileo, China’s Beidou, and Japan’s QZSS navigation satellite tv for pc networks present an identical sign, permitting customers to mix navigation fixes with satellites from totally different fleets, producing a extra correct place estimate.

Simply as extra satellites give customers extra correct place estimates, the stacking of alerts at totally different frequencies permit receivers to kind out distortions precipitated because the radio waves move via the higher environment, additional refining the accuracy of GPS navigation.

Contributors to the GPS Three delays included points with failed and broken capacitors, elements which retailer and launch electrical costs within the satellites’ navigation payloads, in response to a GAO report final yr.

“In response to program officers, every satellite tv for pc has over 500 capacitors of the identical design that skilled failures,” the GAO wrote in a Might 2017 report back to Congress.

Officers found that the subcontractor which provided the capacitors didn’t qualify the elements to be used within the GPS satellites. Engineers then invalidated the outcomes of reliability testing of the elements earlier than the capacitors had been lastly declared match for the GPS satellites.

However GPS Three SV01 continues to be fitted with the suspect capacitors, in response to the GAO.

“The Air Pressure determined to imagine the danger of capacitor failure and proceed with the primary satellite tv for pc as-is, fitted with capacitors largely from the questionable lot,” the GAO wrote final yr. “This system changed the suspect capacitors within the second and third satellites, the one different satellites that had the suspect elements.”

GPS Three brings upgrades to world navigation fleet

The GPS Three-series satellites are constructed to function no less than 15 years, and their higher-power transmitters make their navigation alerts much less vulnerable to jamming.

“The large issues right here we’re going to see with GPS Three, we’re going to see a rise in energy,” Whitney stated. “We’ve put a requirement on there to supply stronger alerts to attempt to struggle via a few of that jamming that we see, notably on our army alerts. We’ve additionally placed on a requirement for elevated accuracy. So the person will finally see that when it comes on-line. We’ve added some extra civil alerts.”

Just like the earlier line of GPS 2F satellites, the GPS Three-series spacecraft will broadcast a devoted L5 sign geared to assist air navigation. The GPS Three satellites additionally proceed beaming an encrypted military-grade navigation sign often called M-code.

“GPS Three satellites may even deliver the complete functionality to make use of M-code and improve the anti-jam resilience in assist of our warfighters and allies,” Whitney stated.

The M-code is meant to offer U.S. and allied forces a bonus on the battlefield, permitting GPS satellites to beam higher-power, jam-resistant alerts to particular areas. It may additionally give the army the power to disrupt or jam civilian alerts in a selected area with out degrading the M-code alerts, giving pleasant forces a bonus.

“A very long time in the past, there was a functionality for what we known as then selective availability, the place we may degrade, or not put out as correct of a civil sign,” he stated. “That functionality not exists inside the system, however we have now gone to this new M-code sign for our army customers, which is identical frequency however spectrally separated a bit bit. That enables us to do particular issues for them.”

Even with the primary GPS Three satellite tv for pc’s launch, all the upgrades coming within the new era of navigation satellites is not going to be accessible to army and civilian customers till builders end work on a modernized floor management system to utilize the enhancements.

Raytheon is charged with growing the Subsequent Technology Operational Management Phase. Higher often called OCX, the command and management system is projected to value as much as $6 billion — $2 billion or extra over price range — and is no less than 5 years delayed. The total model of OCX, often called Block 1, seemingly gained’t be prepared till 2021 or 2022, and solely then will the complete potential of the GPS Three satellites be realized, Whitney instructed reporters Dec. 14.

The GAO discovered that “poor acquisition choices and a gradual recognition of growth issues” precipitated the delays within the new GPS floor command and management system, which is backward-compatible with older GPS satellites and is required to course of the M-code army sign and the brand new interoperable L1C civilian sign. The Air Pressure has an preliminary model of the OCX command and management system — named Block zero — prepared for deal with the launch and in-orbit checkout of the GPS Three satellites, and Whitney stated the Air Pressure is engaged on an interim improve to the present GPS management system to permit the M-code sign to start testing with army models in 2020, 15 years after the launch of the primary satellite tv for pc with M-code.

Lawmakers and the GAO have additionally raised issues concerning the readiness of person receivers outfitted to deal with the M-code sign, and every new GPS functionality will solely have world attain when it’s deployed on 24 satellites.

“Full M-code functionality — which incorporates each the power to broadcast a sign by way of satellites and a floor system and person tools to obtain the sign — will take no less than a decade as soon as the companies are capable of deploy MGUE (army GPS person tools) receivers in adequate numbers,” the GAO wrote in a assessment of the GPS Three program final yr.

Regardless of the delays and technical hurdles, extra customers than ever depend on GPS satellites, and the community’s attain extends all over the world, infiltrating quite a few sides of society and billions of lives, with purposes starting from banking to on-line relationship.

“For the civilian person, GPS has grow to be a pallet on which to create and innovate,” stated Johnathon Caldwell, Lockheed Martin’s Vice President of navigation programs. “I don’t suppose 5 years in the past individuals thought you’d have your ride-hailing apps, otherwise you’d be capable to seize a scooter and get round among the huge cities otherwise. You wouldn’t see the productiveness in America’s heartland with out the improvements in farming which have come about.

“The world is altering quickly,” Caldwell stated. “We’re speaking about autonomous automobiles. How can we be extra fuel-efficient with airplanes, with cars? How can we be higher stewards of the environment? GPS, and these new superior capabilities, give individuals a chance to do artistic issues and be modern.”

SpaceX launched 21 rockets this yr

With the GPS launch Sunday, SpaceX closed out 2018 with its 21st profitable flight of the yr, breaking a report for the corporate’s highest annual launch fee beforehand set final yr with 18.

The launches this yr included six missions from Vandenberg Air Pressure Base in California, and 15 from Florida’s House Coast — 12 from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Pressure Station and three from close by pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy House Heart.

A spotlight of the yr for SpaceX was the maiden check flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket, made by combining three Falcon 9 rocket boosters collectively to generate greater than 5 million kilos of thrust. The Falcon Heavy’s debut Feb. 6 despatched a Tesla Roadster from Musk’s assortment into the photo voltaic system on a trajectory that reaches farther from the solar than the orbit of Mars.

SpaceX launched three resupply missions to the Worldwide House Station, three missions carrying Iridium communications satellites into orbit, and eight flights with geostationary communications payloads. Different missions in 2018 launched NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite tv for pc — an observatory constructed to detect planets round different stars — and Earth commentary satellites for Spain and Argentina.

SpaceX plans round 18 launches subsequent yr, in response to Hans Koenigsmann, the corporate’s vp of construct and flight reliability. Huge launches subsequent yr embody the primary two check flights of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon human-rated capsule, with astronauts set to experience the spacecraft to the Worldwide House Station as quickly as mid-2019.

The corporate’s 2019 launch schedule is about to start Jan. 7 with the launch of a Falcon 9 rocket and a batch of 10 next-generation Iridium voice and knowledge relay satellites from Vandenberg Air Pressure Base, California.

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Observe Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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