SpaceX successfully launches an updated GPS satellite for the Space Force

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Update November 5th, 8:00PM ET: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket successfully took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and deployed the GPS III SV04 satellite about an hour and a half later. The Falcon 9’s first stage also successfully landed on SpaceX’s drone ship following takeoff.

Original Story: Thursday night, SpaceX is slated to launch a new, upgraded GPS satellite for the US Space Force from Cape Canaveral, Florida — the latest spacecraft intended to help modernize the current GPS fleet. This will be the fourth GPS satellite of its kind to launch in the last three years, and the third one to be launched by SpaceX.

The satellite going up on this flight is GPS III SV04, which will become one of 31 primary GPS satellites in orbit. This vehicle is part of a new block of GPS III spacecraft intended to slowly replace the current aging GPS vehicles. Built by Lockheed Martin, these GPS III satellites are supposed to be three times more accurate than their predecessors and have more advanced “anti-jamming” capabilities to prevent cyberattacks, thanks to a new M-Code signal embedded in the satellite.

The GPS III satellites are also meant to be more user-friendly for civilians. The vehicles sport a new “civil signal” that allows them to more easily communicate with other satellite navigation systems in space, notably Europe’s Galileo constellation of more than two dozen spacecraft. That way, civilians and commercial users looking to tap into the system will have more potential spacecraft overhead at any given time.

It’s been a slow process launching these GPS III replacements, marked by technological and testing delays, as well as delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Lockheed Martin says the fifth satellite is ready to go and awaiting its launch date. In the meantime, five more GPS III satellites are in production, according to the company, and three of them are fully built and undergoing tests. Once GPS III SV04 launches, up to 12 percent of the current GPS constellation will consist of the new satellites.

SpaceX also had some trouble with its Falcon 9 rocket leading up to this flight. This mission was originally set to take off on October 2nd, but the rocket stopped itself from launch just 2 seconds before liftoff. SpaceX later learned that two of the rocket’s nine main engines had tried to ignite earlier than expected, triggering the abort. The early startup was caused by a red lacquer that had been left inside the engines during their construction. SpaceX has replaced the engines and hopes the problem has been solved.

NASA is keeping a close eye on this launch. The same red lacquer that caused the early ignition was found in the engines of the Falcon 9 rocket slated to carry astronauts to the International Space Station this month. The engines are being replaced in that rocket too, but NASA wants to make sure that the GPS launch gets off the ground safely before humans get on the Falcon 9 again.

Takeoff of GPS III SV04 is scheduled for 6:24PM ET, on top of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. SpaceX is using an entirely new Falcon 9 rocket for the job, though in September, the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center announced it will allow SpaceX to launch two future GPS III satellites on the company’s used Falcon 9 rockets. For this launch, SpaceX still plans to recover the Falcon 9 following the flight and will attempt to land the rocket on one of the company’s floating drone ships in the Atlantic Ocean.

For now, weather is looking okay for launch with a 60 percent chance of favorable conditions. Tune in tonight to see if SpaceX can get its rocket off the ground this week. Live coverage is scheduled to begin 15 minutes before takeoff.

Update November 5th, 4:45PM ET: This article was updated to include new information about the current launch date and the reason behind the October 2nd abort.

Update October 2nd, 10:00PM ET: Just 2 seconds before liftoff, SpaceX stopped the launch of its Falcon 9 rocket, without giving a clear indication of what went wrong. The next opportunity for SpaceX to fly is Saturday evening, though a launch date hasn’t been confirmed yet.

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