WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Jan. 18 lifted off at 7:24 a.m. Eastern from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, carrying a U.S. Space Force GPS satellite.

The Falcon 9 launched the Lockheed Martin-built GPS 3 SV-06 — the 6th of the newest version of the satellite known as GPS 3. The GPS constellation of 31 satellites operated by the U.S. Space Force provides positioning, navigation and timing signals to military and civilian users. GPS satellites operate in medium Earth orbit at an altitude of 12,550 miles. 

The launch of SV-06 was SpaceX’s fifth GPS mission, its second national security space launch of 2023 and Falcon 9’s 196th flight.

The first stage booster supporting this mission previously launched Crew-5 astronauts to the International Space Station. 

Approximately two and a half minutes after liftoff, the rocket’s first stage separated. Following separation, the first stage landed on the “A Shortfall of Gravitas” drone ship stationed in the Atlantic Ocean.

The second stage performed two engine burns to inject the GPS satellite into the intended orbit one hour and 29 minutes after liftoff. SpaceX in a tweet confirmed the satellite deployment was successful. 

SpaceX had previously launched four GPS 3 satellites under contracts awarded in 2016 and 2018. The first launch was on Dec. 23, 2018, the second and third on June 30 and Nov. 5, 2020, and the fourth on June 17, 2021.

After five launches on Falcon 9, next GPS satellite will fly on Vulcan

The next GPS satellite due for launch, SV-07, will fly to orbit on United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket. ULA received the task order in May 2022 under the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 agreement which splits national security missions 60/40 between ULA and SpaceX.

Based on the timing of the award and Vulcan’s still uncertain schedule, SV-07 will launch in 2024 at the earliest. 

ULA said Vulcan will be ready to perform its debut launch mid-2023 and the vehicle has to complete two successful commercial missions to be certified for NSSL launches. The first mission awarded to ULA that would have been flown by Vulcan, USSF-51, was changed to an Atlas 5 to keep the mission on schedule. According to the current plan, Vulcan’s first NSSL missions would be USSF-106, USSF-87 and GPS SV-07.

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...