An Atlas V rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, carrying a GPS satellite for the United States Air Force.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The next step in the U.S. Air Force’s modernization of the Global Positioning System was successfully deployed Saturday, about 3½ hours after the the satellite lifted off aboard a 19-story Atlas V rocket.
It was the third successful mission in October for the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture called United Launch Alliance.
“The GPS constellation is the most robust and capable system in the history of space,” said Col. Steve Whitney, director of the Air Force’s Global Positioning System. “GPS is the critical enabler for the U.S. military to provide national security, and worldwide service for billions of users around the globe.”
Millions of people around the world use the military’s GPS constellation whenever they check smart phones and other devices for maps and directions. Usually accurate to within a few feet and a billionth of a second, the system also plays an important role in the processing of financial transactions.
The GPS constellation now includes 31 active satellites orbiting in six planes about 12,500 miles up. In about a month, the $245 million satellite will replace one that is 19 years old, more than twice the age it was designed to serve.
The infusion of new GPS satellites in the past several years is weeding out older models, some of which have lasted far beyond the 7½ years they were designed to operate. The oldest is 25.
“You will see very significant drop in the average age” of the satellites, by the time all 12 of the current generation enter service, Whitney said. The new spacecraft are designed to serve more than 12 years, but likely will last longer.
The mission is the second-to-last in a series of a dozen known as GPS Block IIF, or 2F, all built by Boeing (BA). The last satellite in the series is expected to launch in February.
The 19-story Atlas V rocket lifted off at 12:13 p.m. ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 41 with 860,000 pounds of thrust, powered by a Russian RD-180 main engine.
For ULA, Saturday’s launch followed a commercial satellite Oct. 2 from Cape Canaveral, and a classified U.S. intelligence mission Oct. 8 from California. It’s not the first time the company has launched three missions in a month, but is it the first time the same type of rocket flew all three.
It was the company’s 11th launch of the year and the 59th flight by an Atlas V since the rocket’s debut in 2002.
“We’re hitting our stride, I believe,” said Ron Fortson, ULA’s mission management director. “We’ve done a lot of work over the last several years to really work on streamlining our launch processing activity to enable us to be able to have this type of capability, to be able to turnaround and launch as quickly as we’ve been able to do.”
The weather forecast was nearly perfect, and the rocket thundered into a blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds, visible for several minutes as its trail of fire streaked northeast off the pad. The first launch attempt was delayed a day to replace a faulty valve found in launch pad equipment.
The joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin (LMT) has one more launch planned this year: another Atlas V rocket is targeting a Dec. 3 launch of a Cygnus spacecraft carrying cargo to the International Space Station.
SpaceX also hopes to return its Falcon 9 rocket to flight in December, with one or two launches that would be the company’s first since a failed International Space Station resupply launch in June.
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