Update June 30th, 5:45PM ET: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launched at 4:10PM ET, following a short delay due to high winds above the launch site. After the launch, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 successfully landed on the company’s drone ship in the Atlantic. At around 5:40PM ET, SpaceX deployed the GPS III satellite into its intended orbit, wrapping up a smooth flight.
Original Story: This afternoon, SpaceX is set to launch a new GPS satellite for the US Space Force out of Cape Canaveral, Florida — part of an ongoing quest by the Department of Defense to update the GPS constellation already in orbit. This satellite will replace one of the older, less powerful GPS satellites currently in the system, maintaining the total number of satellites in space at 31.
This is the third GPS satellite model of its kind to launch into orbit and SpaceX’s second time launching a GPS spacecraft. Called GPS III SV03, it’s part of a block of satellites known as GPS III, designed and built by Lockheed Martin. Lockheed Martin claims that compared to older GPS spacecraft, the GPS III satellites “have three times better accuracy and up to eight times improved anti-jamming capabilities.”
The spacecraft also sport a number of new features. They can broadcast a new signal meant to help civilians and commercial users of the satellites, and they’re also able to communicate with other navigation satellites, such as Europe’s Galileo constellation. That way, people using the GPS system can connect with even more satellites in space. Plus, the spacecraft are meant to last longer in space than their predecessors.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the military branch to delay the mission
The Space Force had been gearing up to launch the satellite in April, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced the military branch to delay the mission. There was particular concern about the crew’s ability to stay six feet apart while operating the satellite during its initial launch and deployment at the designated control center in Lockheed Martin’s facility in Colorado. “We focused on the people, the personnel, the processes and the procedures as well as the facility,” Col. Edward Byrne, senior materiel leader of the medium Earth orbit space systems division at the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, said during a press call. The Space Force reduced the amount of crew needed to handle the satellite at launch, moved some of the terminals around, and put up partitions for extra separation.
After rehearsing and adapting to the new system, the Space Force is now ready to fly. In the meantime, extra precautions are also being taken at the launch site at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is slated to launch. The 45th Space Wing, which oversees launches out of the Cape, has instituted temperature checks and face coverings for its personnel. Different sets of people are assigned to separate flights so that there is no “cross contamination” between personnel jumping from one mission to the next.
“A number of cases have increased in Florida and in Brevard County, but we’re taking necessary precautions to make sure that everyone is safe to go,” Brig. Gen. Doug Schiess, the 45th Space Wing commander, said during the call. He noted that the 45th Space Wing has overseen several launches during the pandemic — notably, the first crewed launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon that send two NASA astronauts to space — and that no one in the 45th Space Wing has gotten sick thus far.
Takeoff is scheduled for 3:55PM ET out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. SpaceX only has a short window to launch — until 4:10PM ET. After takeoff, SpaceX will attempt to land its Falcon 9 rocket on one of the company’s drone ships in the Atlantic. So far, there is about a 60 percent chance that weather conditions will be favorable for the launch, but if SpaceX can’t launch today, the company has a backup launch date on Wednesday, July 1st. SpaceX’s live coverage of the mission will begin about 15 minutes before launch.