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Fourth GPS III satellite successfully launched

November 5, 2020  - By

UPDATE:  The U.S. Space Force, Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) and its mission partners successfully launched the fourth GPS III satellite at 6:24 p.m. EST Nov. 5 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The Lockheed Martin-built satellite was carried to orbit aboard a Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

“The launch of GPS III SV04 is a testament to SMC’s ability to rapidly and safely deliver new capabilities on orbit,” said Cordell DeLaPena, Air Force program executive officer for SMC’s Space Production Corps. “At SMC, we are proud to deliver our fourth GPS III satellite and will continue to operate at an accelerated pace to enhance the capabilities of the billions of users worldwide.”

“I’m proud of my team’s 83rd successful National Security Space Launch and look forward to our future missions with SpaceX,” said Col. Robert Bongiovi, SMC’s Launch Enterprise director. “Ultimately, our ability to embrace innovation with our launch providers advances warfighter’s capabilities while lowering costs to the U.S. Government and its taxpayers.”

GPS III SV04 separated from its upper stage approximately 90 minutes after launch. Engineers and operators at Lockheed Martin’s Waterton Facility will now begin on-orbit checkout and tests, which are estimated to complete in approximately one month. Operational use is expected to begin in a few months.

“The GPS III program continues to make strides in modernizing the GPS constellation for the U. S. Space Force while maintaining the gold standard for position, navigation and timing,” said Col. Edward Byrne, Medium Earth Orbit Space Systems Division chief.

GPS III SV04 will join the current GPS constellation comprised of 31-operational spacecraft. GPS III, the newest generation of GPS satellites, brings new capabilities to users, including three times greater accuracy and up to eight times improved anti-jamming capabilities.

A Falcon 9 carrying GPS III SV04 lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, Nov 5. (Photo: SpaceX via USAF)

A Falcon 9 carrying GPS III SV04 lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, Nov 5. (Photo: SpaceX via USAF)

GPS constellation status

According to the U.S. Space Force Second Space Operations Squadron (2 SOPS), the satellite is designated  SVN-77/PRN-14 in the GPS almanac. GPS III SV04 (SVN-77/PRN-14) will replace SVN-44/PRN-28 in the B plane at slot 03. 2 SOPS will issue a Launch NANU after on-orbit checkout when control of SVN-77 is transferred from Lockheed Martin to 2 SOPS for insertion into the GPS control segment.

GPS III SV-2 (SVN 75), launched Aug. 22, 2019, replaced SVN 45/PRN-21 at D3 and was set healthy on April 1, 2020. As a result, SVN 45 is being re-phased from D3 to D2F replacing SVN 46/PRN 11 and will arrive sometime in November of this year. SVN 46 will be taken out of the operational constellation before the January 2021 launch of GPS III SV05 (SVN-78) and sent to Launch, Anomaly, Resolution, and Disposal Operations (LADO), making PRN-11 available.

GPS III SV-03 (SVN 76, PRN-23) launched June 30, 2020, and was set operational and healthy on October 1.

SVN-46, launched October 7, 1999, has been an “iron bird” workhorse in the D-plane and has successfully served the world’s GPS users for more than 20 years, 12 years past its designed service life. It outlasted (and in many cases, outperformed) many of its peers on-orbit, testament to quality engineering and the diligent efforts of the men and women of the U.S. Air Force.

Screenshot: SpaceX

Screenshot: SpaceX

The fourth GPS III satellite (GPS III SV04) is scheduled to launch today at 06:24 p.m. EST (~15 minute launch window) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The new launch window follows an aborted launch with two seconds to go on Oct. 2.

The launch can be viewed on this live feed.

Built by Lockheed Martin, GPS III satellites are designed to help the U.S. Space Force modernize the current GPS constellation with new technology and advanced capabilities. GPS III provides three times greater accuracy and up to eight times improved anti-jamming power over satellites in the current constellation. GPS III also adds a new L1C civil signal compatible with Europe’s Galileo global navigation satellite system, which will provide greater civil user connectivity in the future.

After adding GPS III SV04, the four GPS III satellites on orbit will represent about 12 percent of the 31 satellites in the GPS constellation.

GPS III SV04 is the 23rd M-code-enabled satellite in the constellation, only one short now of the 24 needed for global coverage. M-code is a more-secure, harder-to-jam or spoof signal invaluable to U.S. and allied military forces.

GPS III SV03, which lifted off from the Cape on June 30, was set operational on Oct. 1. The next satellite — GPS III SV05 — was declared  “Available for Launch” in May 2020. The satellite is now waiting to be called up for a launch date in 2021. Five more GPS III satellites are in production, three of which are fully assembled and in testing.

Lockheed Martin is also under contract to build up to 22 additional GPS III Follow On (GPS IIIF) satellites, which add additional technology and advanced capabilities to this warfighting system, including a new Regional Military Protection Capability, which will increase anti-jam support in theater to ensure U.S. and allied forces cannot be denied access to GPS in hostile environments; an accuracy-enhancing laser retroreflector array; a fully digital navigation payload; and a new search and rescue payload.

In July, the Space Force declared that the GPS IIIF program had fulfilled Milestone C, which means the start of the production phase. Lockheed Martin has introduced augmented reality tools into the GPS IIIF production process to drive even-greater efficiency into the production process.

Continued investment in GPS is important. Besides the military applications, the U.S. economic benefit of GPS is estimated to be over $300 billion per year and $1.4 trillion since inception.

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.