SpaceX launches Air Force's best Global Positioning System yet, ends banner year

Katie Ramirez
December 26, 2018

The satellite was supposed to soar on Tuesday but rocket concerns and then weather delayed the flight.

SpaceX has launched payloads for the U.S. military before, but Vespucci is the company's first official "National Security Space" mission - a designation reserved for liftoffs deemed critical to national defense.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, scheduled to launch a U.S. Air Force navigation satellite, sits on Launch Complex 40 after the launch was postponed. This is the first United States national security mission for the SpaceX company. This time, however, SpaceX won't attempt to land Falcon 9's first stage after the launch, the company said in its press kit, citing mission requirements.

It took five tries, working through technical issues, severe weather and even the pressure of a vice presidential visit until, finally, a rocket cut through clear skies Sunday on the way to space. The rocket flew in an expendable configuration, without any landing legs, at the request of SpaceX's customer, the US Air Force.

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The GPS constellation provides precise positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) information to a variety of users, from soldiers in the field to drivers trying to find the best route through rush-hour traffic.

The satellite is the first of 10 built by Lockheed Martin and has major improvements including a redesigned Nuclear Detonation Detection System and a search-and-rescue payload.

In addition, "we're going to see an increase in power", Col. Steve Whitney, director of the SMC Global Positioning Systems Directorate, said in the December 14 telecon. Thompson added, "As more Global Positioning System 3 satellites join the constellation, it will bring better service at a lower cost to a technology that is now fully woven into the fabric of any modern civilization".

The next satellite is due to launch in mid-2019. It's the first in a series and nicknamed Vespucci after the 15th-century Italian explorer who calculated Earth's circumference to within 50 miles (80 kilometers). Another launch was scheduled for Saturday and Thursday, however, strong winds and thunderstorms halted both lift-off attempts. The original launch window was 8:55 a.m.

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