The U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) has rescheduled the launch of the third GPS III (GPS III SV03) navigation satellite.
According to a statement from SMC, the postponement is to “minimize the potential of COVID-19 exposure to the launch crew and early-orbit operators”.
Originally scheduled for late April 2020 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the launch of the GPS III-3 satellite is now projected for no-earlier than June 30, pending a re-evaluation in May.
SpaceX is contracted for the launch of the GPS III SV03 satellite, for which, the company is using its Falcon 9 reusable rocket. The launch will be the second National Security Space Launch (NSSL) mission to be launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and the first NSSL mission where a Launch Service Provider is recovering a booster.
The SMC statement said that the current Global Positioning System (GPS) constellation, with 31 satellites on orbit, is healthy allowing for a “strategic pause” without gaps in coverage or capability to “ensure the health and safety of our force without operational impact”.
“We do not make this decision lightly, however, given our GPS constellation remains strong, we have the opportunity to make a deliberate decision to maintain our mission assurance posture, without introducing additional health risk to personnel or mission risk to the launch,” said Lt. Gen. John F. Thompson, SMC commander and program executive officer for space.
“The GPS system supports vital U.S. and allied operations worldwide, unabated. As the COVID-19 pandemic is a threat to national security, likewise, rescheduling the launch is in the interest of national security,” said Gen. Thompson. “We have to get it right the first time, and protecting our people is just as important as cost, schedule, and performance.”
The SMC statement added that the team is taking the necessary steps to protect the health of personnel to allow a swift return to the mission. SMC still plans to complete the next three GPS III launches in 2020.
“Some of the steps include procedural and facility modifications at the GPS III Launch and Checkout Capability (LCC) operations center and reducing the onsite crew size to provide adequate physical distancing, per CDC guidelines,” said Col. Edward Byrne, chief of Medium Earth Orbit Space Systems Division. “Once these efforts are completed, and the crews have rehearsed and are deemed proficient and ready to execute under these modified conditions, we fully intend to return to our launch cadence for deploying GPS III satellites.”
GPS III SV03, named “Columbus” in honor of Christopher Columbus, is the latest of up to 32 next-generation GPS III/GPS III Follow-On (GPS IIIF) satellites Lockheed Martin has designed and is building to help the Space Force modernize its GPS constellation with new technology and capabilities.
The GPS III satellite family provides new capabilities vital to ensuring the fidelity of the GPS constellation and signal in the contested, degraded and operationally limited environments.
According to Lockheed Martin, GPS III satellites have three times better accuracy and up to eight times improved anti-jamming capabilities than their predecessors, and a design life 25 percent longer than the previous generation GPS satellites on-orbit today. GPS III’s new L1C civil signal will also make it the first GPS satellite to broadcast a compatible signal with other international global navigation satellite systems (GNSS), like Europe’s Galileo, improving connectivity for civilian users.
Lockheed Martin is contracted to build a total of ten GPS III satellites as the initial batch.
The first GPS III satellite, GPS III SV01 (USA-289, SVN-74), nicknamed “Vespucci” after Amerigo Vespucci, was launched on Dec. 23, 2018, and achieved Operational Acceptance on Jan. 2, 2020. USSF made SV01 available for use by military and civilian users for critical missions worldwide on Jan. 13.
The second one, GPS III SV02 (also called USA-293, SVN-75), dubbed “Magellan” in honor of Ferdinand Magellan, was launched on August 22, 2019. The satellite achieved Operational Acceptance on March 27 and was included into the operational GPS constellation on April 1.
In September 2018, the Air Force selected Lockheed Martin for the GPS III Follow On (GPS IIIF) program, an estimated $7.2 billion opportunity to build up to 22 GPS IIIF satellites with additional capabilities. The Air Force also awarded Lockheed Martin a $1.4 billion contract for support to start up the program and to contract the 11th and 12th GPS III (the first two GPS IIIF) satellites.
GPS IIIF builds off Lockheed Martin’s existing modular GPS III, which was designed to evolve with new technology and changing mission needs. These will include a fully digital navigation payload, a Regional Military Protection capability, an accuracy-enhancing Laser Retroreflector Array, and a Search & Rescue payload.
Lockheed Martin is expected to soon complete its critical design review with the Space Force to begin production on the first two GPS IIIF satellites under contract. The first GPS IIIF satellite is expected to be available for launch in 2026.
The GPS III team is led by the Production Corps, Medium Earth Orbit Division, at the U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, at Los Angeles Air Force Base. 2 SOPS, at Schriever Air Force Base, manages and operates the GPS constellation for both civil and military users.