Space Force Sends Additional GPS Capability into Space

The third launch of the GPS III system adds performance and protection.

With industry partners, the Space and Missile Systems Center of the U.S. Space Force launched the GPS III Space Vehicle 03, or SV03, on June 30 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The launch sets the third GPS III satellite into space to join the SV01 and SV02 satellites, which were declared operational in January and April.

The GPS III system is the space portion of the Space Force’s effort to modernize the entire GPS capability, offered Tonya Ladwig, acting vice president, Navigation Systems, Lockheed Martin Space.

Some of the military and industry leaders involved with the launch briefed the media on a call last week, including: Ladwig; Brig. Gen. Doug Schiess, USAF, commander, 45th Space Wing, U.S. Space Force; Col. Ed Byrne, USAF, senior materiel leader, Medium-Earth Orbit Space Systems Division, Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), U.S. Space Force; Walter Lauderdale, mission director, SMC Launch Enterprise, U.S. Space Force; and Lee Rosen, vice president of customer operations and integration, Space X.

“I’m proud to be a part of an incredible team with Space X, SMC and our satellite contractor to put this asset on orbit for our nation, for our Space Force and for the warfighters that need this capability,” Gen. Schiess said.

Col. Byrne explained that the system will achieve three times better navigational accuracy and eight times more power, which helps with the anti-jam capability of the spacecraft. “And I know for the GPS III program, we are expecting an accuracy of 0.63 meters or better,” the colonel stated.

According to Ladwig, GPS III adds that new technology and much greater capability to 29 of the 31 current satellites in the GPS constellation. The system supports M-code, “a more-secure, harder-to-jam or spoof signal for our military forces,” she said. It also adds a new L1C Civil signal. “Significantly, this satellite, GPS III SV03, will be the 22nd M-Code enabled satellite in the constellation—just two short now of global coverage,” Ladwig offered.

The greater GPS III team is delivering the capability to over 4 billion military and civilian users around the world.

Earlier this year, the U.S. military celebrated the 25th anniversary of the GPS system reaching full operational capability, a fitting coincidence, Col. Byrne observed. “The launch of the GPS III SVO3 spacecraft is significant and marks another major milestone for the program, for SMC and the U.S. Space Force as we continue our journey to modernize and deliver new capabilities to the GPS Constellation,” he stated.

The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the launch originally scheduled for April 29 and the parties put the mission on a 60-day hold to implement new health and safety measures, an SMC spokesperson said. “The men and women at 45th Space Wing are just doing an incredible job during unprecedented times with this coronavirus situation,” Gen. Schiess added.

The effort also marks the first launch of a GPS III production satellite and National Security Space Launch (NSSL) where the launch service provider attempted to recover the rocket booster, Col. Byrne noted.

The booster successfully landed back on SpaceX’s autonomous spaceport drone ship named, Just Read the Instructions II, positioned in the Atlantic Ocean. The 10-year old Falcon 9, with 88 missions completed, has flown the most operational missions in the United States, SpaceX said.

“Approximately nine minutes after [liftoff] the first stage will land on the newly refurbished drone ship, Just Read the Instructions,” Rosen described. “It is fresh off its trip across the Panama Canal into the Atlantic Ocean a couple hundred miles offshore. We’re excited to have that capability here to be able to land two vehicles here. That additional landing capability [will enable] quicker turn times between missions. This is our first U.S. Space Force mission and we’re really excited about it and hope that this is the first of many, many of those launches in the future.”

The model of relying on industry for launch services is an evolving relationship, Lauderdale confirmed. For the current launch campaign, the team completed 362 verification tasks and evaluated more than 230 risks. “This combination of activity, encompassing nonrecurring design, process and manufacturing verification tasks, when taken together, culminate in the Space Force’s flight worthiness assessment,” he said.

And at first, the idea of recovering the booster seemed implausible, given the “insufficient performance given the mission trajectory and peel-away combined with the uncertainties associated with this demanding mission,” Lauderdale acknowledged.

“But when we approached Space X to revise some spacecraft requirements for this mission, the GPS III mission, they responded with an opportunity to recover the booster in exchange for adding these requirements as well as other considerations,” he explained. “Our evaluation of that mission’s performance combined with additional work with Space X reduced uncertainty in many areas. And given our technical insight and the support from our GPS teammates from a mission design perspective, we’re able to reach an arrangement in the best interests of the government.”

Lauderdale estimates significant savings from bartering with Space X and the reuse of the booster. “When we came in with the revised requirements, it was an opportunity for us to look at what we could do together,” the mission director explained. “And we were able to knock several million off, in addition to getting the requirements that we had added to the mission.”

Lastly, the team dedicated the launch of GPS III SV03 to Col. Thomas Falzarano, USAF, commander, 21st Space Wing, a rising leader in the service who passed away suddenly last month, Gen. Schiess noted.