From The Editors Science

Space X Launches GPS III SV01 Satellite for US Air Force, Capping 2018 with a Record 21 Launches

After multiple delays over the past week due to weather and technical issues, Elon Musk’s spaceflight company, Space X, finally managed to launch a new state-of-the-art GPS satellite into orbit on behalf of the United States Air Force.

A 229-foot Falcon 9 rocket, along with the USAF payload, blasted off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station into a clear Florida sky at 8:51 a.m.

EST (1351 GMT) on Sunday (Dec 23), marking the company’s record 21st launch for the year, as well as its maiden National Security Space mission.

It was a three-launch jump for Space X from the 18 launches it managed last year.

Space X had closed 2018 with the launch of a reclaimed Falcon 9 booster on Dec 22, which successfully put ten Iridium Next communications satellites into their respective orbits.

The late evening launch had left many southern Californians wondering as to what had really blazed through the darkening sky, until a media advisory from the LA Fire Department AND a Twitter post from none other than the LA Mayor Eric Garcetti himself, allayed their worst fears of UFOs and North Korean nuclear attacks.

“SpaceX has had a phenomenal year no matter how you slice it,” Luigi Peluso, an aerospace and defense consultant at AlixPartners, was quoted by The National as saying in a phone interview.

“In 2019, the big race is who is going to be the first company to put humans into space and bring them back. You’ve got SpaceX, Boeing, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin all vying,” Peluso reportedly added.

As the Falcon 9 climbed to about 52 miles (84 kilometers) above Earth, the nine first-stage Merlin engines cut-off, followed by the separation of the first stage, and then the firing of the second-stage engines – all three events happening in a matter of seconds.

Nicknamed Vespucci in honor of the famous Italian explorer, navigator and cartographer, Amerigo Vespucci, the Lockheed Martin-built satellite entered into a 12,500-mile-high medium Earth orbit about two hours after lift-off, confirmed by Space X through a tweet.

Space X, which is known for salvaging its first-stage boosters for reuse, let it pass this time around, citing USAF requirement.

“There simply was not a performance reserve to meet our requirements and allow for this mission to bring the first stage back,” quoted Walter Lauderdale – mission director at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) Launch Enterprise Systems Directorate – as telling reporters during a pre-launch call on Dec. 14.

Air Force program executive officer for Space and commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, Lt. Gen. John F. Thompson said:

“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.

“As more GPS III 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.”

Col. Robert Bongiovi, Director for Launch Enterprise, said that the launch was a “significant milestone for the GPS constellation as well as our partnership with SpaceX,” adding that it “demonstrated the successful teamwork and cooperation amongst all mission partners to deliver the capabilities our warfighter demands.”

He also said: “I’m proud of my team and look forward to our additional National Security Space missions with SpaceX.”

The 4,400-kilogram solar-powered Vespucci has been deployed as a replacement for the 1997-launched SVN-43, one of the 31 GPS satellites currently providing precise positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) information from their near-Earth orbits to civilians and the armed forces alike.

The SUV-sized Vespucci, the first of a planned series of upgrades to the existing constellation, is three times more accurate in delivering PNT information than the current lot, claims the Air Force.

During the Dec 14 telecon, Col. Steve Whitney, director of the SMC Global Positioning Systems Directorate, reportedly said that the upgrade also includes “an increase in power.”

“We put a requirement on there to produce stronger signals, to try and fight through some of that jamming that we see, particularly on our military signals,” Whitney said.

GPS III signals will also be accessible by other GPS systems, which is a big step forward in terms of enhancing the connectivity and accuracy of navigation signals for civilians across the globe.

“GPS III’s new L1C civil signal will also make it the first GPS satellite broadcasting a compatible signal with other international global navigation satellite systems, like Europe’s Galileo, improving connectivity for civilian users,” officials said in a Sunday press release.

Although Vespucci is designed to remain operational for fifteen years, GPS satellites are known to outlive their proposed lifetimes by sizable margins.

The upgrades to Vespucci and other GPS III satellites that will follow include a redesigned Nuclear Detonation Detection System and a search-and-rescue payload.

“The most important thing is that we get that rocket up safely and securely and it achieves its mission,” U.S. Vice President Mike Pence told spaceport workers, according to CBS News.

“I know this bird is going to fly and when it flies, it’s going to make a difference for the security and prosperity of the American people,” said Pence, who is also the president of the newly reconstituted National Space Council.

Trump’s deputy was conspicuously absent from the Sunday launch, although he did make an appearance at the postponed Tuesday launch.

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