Featured Image Source: SpaceX
SpaceX successfully deployed the United States Space Force GPS III satellite into orbit on June 30th. The mission was the first one under the newly created branch of the military. It was also the first operational U.S. military mission in which SpaceX was granted permission to land the Falcon 9 rocket after satellite deployment. SpaceX introduced the rocket recovery innovation to the aerospace industry as part of its reusability program that aims to reduce the cost of spaceflight. During a press conference on June 26, the Space Force’s Chief of Space Missile Center's Launch Enterprise Falcon Division, Walter Lauderdale, shared SpaceX took off “several million dollars” off the total price of the launch as a tradeoff to recover the Falcon 9 rocket booster. The original SpaceX launch contract was valued at around $96.5 million. SpaceX has recovered rockets on previous flights carrying military payloads, but those missions carried experimental technology, not operational satellites. In December 2018, SpaceX launched a GPS satellite with an expendable rocket.
Source: Lockheed Martin
SpaceX recovered Falcon 9 during the launch of GPS III, a third new-generation Global Positioning Satellite manufactured by Lockheed Martin. The Falcon 9 lifted off from cloudy skies at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Tuesday afternoon. GPS III will operate alongside 31 GPS satellites that beam navigation signals to everything you use daily – from the online weather and maps on your phone, to military platforms, like aircraft on the battlefield. “The GPS III program continues to build on its successes by delivering advanced capabilities for the United States Space Force, and maintaining the ‘gold standard’ for position, navigation and timing,” said Colonel Edward Byrne, Medium Earth Orbit Space Systems Division chief at the Space and Missile Systems Center. “The Global Positioning System has become part of our critical national infrastructure, from transportation to financial markets to energy grids to the rideshare industry,” said Tonya Ladwig, Vice President of Lockheed Martin’s navigation systems division. “It’s no longer a matter of did you use GPS today. It’s a matter of how many times did you actually use it.”
To land the Falcon 9 rocket’s first-stage booster, engineers had to put extra propellant to perform a landing without compromising the national security mission. “All that required from us was to reassess our burn profile, so we made some slight modifications to that burn profile, but there’s been no mission impact associated with the booster recovery option,” Colonel Byrne told reporters.
About 9 minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9 booster touched-down on a landing pad in the Atlantic Ocean called “Just Read The Instructions” (JRTI). The drone ship features autonomous capabilities and was positioned around 400 miles downrange, near Cape Canaveral. To perform a flawless landing, the booster guides itself and uses its titanium grid-fins to stabilize itself as it descends.
Now, SpaceX can save on manufacturing costs by refurbishing the newly recovered booster to reuse it on future missions. To date, the company has successfully landed 56, and re-flown 37 orbital-class rocket boosters with a perfect accuracy record. This is a grand accomplishment because no other company in the aerospace industry has achieved SpaceX’s level of reusability.