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SpaceX Launches Next-Gen GPS Satellite for US Space Force, Lands Rocket

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SpaceX Launches Next-Gen GPS Satellite for US Space Force, Lands Rocket

SpaceX successfully launched an advanced GPS satellite for the U.S. Space Force on Thursday (Nov. 5), marking the first launch in nearly two weeks here on the Space Coast.

One of the company’s two-stage Falcon 9 rockets blasted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station here at 6:24 p.m. EST (2324 GMT), carrying the GPS III-SV04 satellite to orbit. Nine minutes later, the rocket’s first stage touched down on the deck of “Of Course I Still Love You,” one of SpaceX’s two drone ships.

The GPS III-SV04 mission had been set to follow on the heels of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket, which was scheduled to loft a U.S. spy satellite from Cape Canaveral on Tuesday (Nov. 3). However, the Atlas V launch was delayed twice due to issues with ground systems equipment. ULA is now targeting Friday (Nov. 6) for that liftoff.

It was a crystal clear night here on the Space Coast, and onlookers were able to follow the rocket through the different phases of launch. A nebula-like cloud, typically visible on clear nights, formed around the rocket as the first and second stages separated. The booster’s reentry burn was also visible from a press viewing area.

Tonight’s GPS mission had been waiting to get off the ground since SpaceX was forced to call an abort on Oct. 2. In the final seconds of the countdown that day, the Falcon 9’s computer detected an engine anomaly, and the rocket’s onboard flight termination system shut the engines down. Crews were able to save the vehicle and, after a thorough investigation, pinpoint the issue.

SpaceX determined that residue from a “masking lacquer,” which is designed to protect sensitive engine parts during anti-corrosion anodizing treatment, was left behind post-treatment. The lacquer ended up blocking 0.06-inch-wide (1.6 millimeters) vent holes for valves in two of the nine Merlin engines on the Falcon 9’s first stage, SpaceX representatives said in a news briefing on Oct. 28.

The same traces of lacquer were detected in engines on two other Falcon 9 first stages — one on the rocket that will launch the Sentinel-6 Earth-observation satellite and one on the booster that will launch Crew-1, SpaceX’s next astronaut mission. SpaceX has swapped out the affected engines. The Crew-1 launch date, scheduled for Nov. 14, was not affected by this swap. However, SpaceX and NASA are postponing the Sentinel-6 mission until after Crew-1, setting a new target date of Nov. 21.

Today’s flight marks the third GPS delivery for SpaceX. Two previous advanced GPS III missions also launched on Falcon 9 rockets, including one this past June. Another of the satellites launched on the final flight of ULA’s Delta IV Medium in August 2019.

The U.S. military plans to launch a total of 10 upgraded GPS satellites, which will replace aging members of its current constellation. SpaceX has secured additional contracts to launch the next two GPS III missions, which are expected to lift off sometime next year.

Built by Lockheed Martin in Colorado, the GPS III-SV04 satellite launched today is the fourth member of an upgraded generation of GPS navigation spacecraft that beam down higher-power signals that are more resilient to jamming and boast additional broadcast frequencies to make the GPS network more compatible with other similar constellations, Lockheed representatives have said.

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