Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched its first national security payload for the U.S. government (specifically the Air Force) on Sunday, delivering a roughly $711 million GPS satellite constructed by Lockheed Martin into orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral at 8:51 a.m. ET, the Guardian reported.
The launch itself was delayed several times over the past week — including once when the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage displayed unexpected sensor readings and twice for inclement weather, according to Space.com. The Verge wrote the launch managed to avoid further delay due to the ongoing government showdown because funding for the Department of Defence has already been allocated for 2019.
FINAL LAUNCH: SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket, marking its final launch of the year, carrying a navigation satellite for the U.S. Air Force. The launch was originally scheduled for Tues., but was delayed due to technical concerns and weather conditions. https://t.co/U3WIedOn71 pic.twitter.com/vQaIRKb5kF
— World News Tonight (@ABCWorldNews) December 23, 2018
Successful deployment of GPS III SV01 to medium Earth orbit confirmed. pic.twitter.com/4lhJpwdsip
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) December 23, 2018
The GPS III satellite SpaceX launched on Sunday (Vespucci) is a next-generation version that will eventually help offer significantly more accurate geolocation services, though as the Verge wrote, the Air Force is still working on the ground-based systems necessary to operate it:
SpaceX’s payload is the GPS III SV01, the first of 10 updated GPS III satellites the Air Force plans to launch. It’s meant to join the Air Force’s current GPS constellation already in orbit, and when the new system becomes fully operational, it’s expected to be three times more accurate than the GPS we use now. That won’t happen for a few years though, as the Air Force is still working on the ground control system needed to control this next generation of navigation.
The GPS III satellite will also feature a stronger transmitter as part of efforts to prevent signal jamming
The Falcon 9 in question’s first stage did not re-attempt landing, as the payload was too heavy and delivered too high into orbit for the rocket to meet performance requirements in its reusable configuration.
“There simply was not a performance reserve to meet our requirements and allow for this mission to bring the first stage back,” Walter Lauderdale, mission director at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) Launch Enterprise Systems Directorate, told reporters earlier this month, according to Space.com. However, he added that future GPS III missions may feature attempts to recover the first stage, depending on flight results from Sunday’s mission.
Per the Guardian, Lockheed is producing a total of 32 GPS III satellites for the Air Force in a contract worth $18 billion — with this launch originally scheduled for 2014. The next will launch in the middle of next year.