Last month, the U.S. Air Force and mission partners successfully launched the first satellite in what will become the third generation of orbiting GPS technology. Built by Lockheed Martin and nicknamed “Vespucci” after the Italian explorer, the GPS III satellite was launched Dec. 23 from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. aboard a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) Falcon 9 Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle. The satellite will complement and augment the timing and direction-finding capabilities of the current fleet of 31 GPS satellites in orbit around the Earth.
“Launch is always a monumental event, and especially so since this is the first GPS satellite of its generation launched on SpaceX’s first National Security Space mission,” said Lt. General John F. Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center and Air Force program executive officer for Space. “As more GPS III 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.
“It keeps GPS the gold standard for positioning, navigation, and timing information, giving assured access when and where it matters,” Thomson continued. “This event was a capstone, but it doesn’t mean we’re done. We’re going to run a series of procedures for checkout and test to ensure everything on Vespucci functions as it was designed.”
The satellite separated from its upper stage about two hours after launch and will now undergo about six months’ worth of tests and monitoring by engineers and operators at Lockheed Martin’s Waterton, Colo. facility. The GPS III satellite is expected to be fully operational in about one year. Along with the other GPS satellites, the spacecraft remains in orbit about 12,550 miles (20,200 km) above the Earth, with each satellite circling the Earth twice each day. The GPS III satellite promises three times greater accuracy and eight times better anti-jamming capabilities than earlier GPS satellites.