Coronavirus delays GPS III SV03 launch until June

April 8, 2020  - By

The United States Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) has decided to reschedule the launch of GPS III SV03 (GPS III-3) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to minimize the potential of COVID-19 exposure to the launch crew and early-orbit operators.

Originally scheduled for late April, the launch is now projected for no earlier than June 30, pending a reevaluation in May.

“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 Lockheed Martin-built GPS III satellite will be the second GPS satellite launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It will be the first National Security Space Launch mission where SpaceX will attempt to recover the booster, reports Space News.

GPS III-3 brings the third modernized GPS III satellite to the operational GPS mission, and the team remains ready to execute. GPS III will bring three times better accuracy and up to eight times improved anti-jamming capability than its predecessor.

The current constellation is healthy with 31 satellites on orbit, allowing the team to take this strategic pause without gaps in coverage or capability.

“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.”

SMC still plans to complete the next three GPS launches this year. The team is taking the necessary steps to protect the health of personnel to allow a swift return to the mission.

“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.”

A leader of GPS III acquisition, SMC’s Production Corps is the United States Space Force’s acquisition office for producing and delivering GPS satellites, ground systems and military user equipment. The Production Corps’ agile program management techniques, smart business approach and close teaming with Lockheed Martin Space are enabling the production and delivery of GPS III’s new civil and warfighting capabilities by 2023. GPS delivers the “gold standard” of space-based positioning, navigation, and timing services vital to U.S. and allied operations worldwide, and underpins critical financial, transportation, and agricultural infrastructure that more than four billion users have come to depend on daily.

SMC’s Launch Enterprise, located at Los Angeles Air Force Base, California, is responsible for the acquisition and operation of launch vehicles, which includes mission assurance and launch safety. The Launch Enterprise is also responsible for leading the effort to certify new entrants to provide launch services for National Security payloads.

GPS III SV03 will be launched into operational orbit by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. GPS III SV03 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 Space and Missile Systems Center is the U.S. Space Force’s center of excellence for acquiring and developing military space systems. SMC’s portfolio includes space launch, global positioning, military space vehicle communications, defense meteorological space vehicles, range systems, space vehicle control networks, space-based infrared systems, and space situational awareness capabilities.

SMC continues to deliver vital capabilities to the warfighter and the world, despite the challenges of COVID-19. Recent examples include the successful launch of AEHF-6 on March 26, Operational Acceptance of GPS III SV02 by Space Operations Command on March 27, and the inclusion of SV02 into the operational GPS constellation on April 1.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket orbited the first GPS III satellite on Dec. 23, 2018. (Photo: SpaceX)

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket orbited the first GPS III satellite on Dec. 23, 2018. (Photo: SpaceX)

About the Author: Tracy Cozzens

Senior Editor Tracy Cozzens joined GPS World magazine in 2006. She also is editor of GPS World’s newsletters and the sister website Geospatial Solutions. She has worked in government, for non-profits, and in corporate communications, editing a variety of publications for audiences ranging from federal government contractors to teachers.