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SN Military.Space Sandra Erwin

The U.S. Air Force’s first GPS 3 satellite was encapsulated within a SpaceX payload fairing at Astrotech Space Operations on Dec. 7 in preparation for a Dec. 18 launch at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Encapsulation of the satellite within its payload fairing protects it against the impact of dynamic pressure and aerodynamic heating during its flight through the earth’s atmosphere. The first vehicle of the Lockheed Martin-made GPS 3 constellation is called Vespucci, in honor of Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer for whom the Americas were named.

The Air Force Space and Missile Systems center reported yesterday that the vehicle is ready to be rolled out to its pad at Space Launch Complex-40, where it will be mated with a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Vespucci will augment the current 31-satellite constellation that provides positioning, navigation, and timing services for more than four billion users worldwide.

MUCH AT STAKE IN THIS LAUNCH  The Air Force did not launch any new GPS satellites in 2017 and wants to get one on orbit before the end of 2018. Vespucci was flown to Cape Canaveral on Aug. 20 aboard a massive Air Force C-17 aircraft.

SpaceX won contracts to execute five of the first six GPS 3 launches. Lockheed Martin is building a 10-satellite constellation and is under contract to manufacture up to 22 additional GPS 3F follow-on vehicles.

With U.S. satellites said to be vulnerable to electronic attacks such as jamming and spoofing, Air Force leaders want to get an improved, more secure GPS constellation in orbit. GPS 3 has a much stronger signal and an entirely new design. It will have three times greater accuracy and up to eight times more anti-jamming capabilities than the existing GPS satellites, according to Lockheed Martin. The Air Force also is working on a more cyber-secure GPS 3 ground segment, OCX, which has been plagued by delays and overruns. GPS 3 will be the first satellite to broadcast the new L1C civil signal that is shared by other international global navigation satellite systems, like Galileo.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...