Space Force Confirms Approval to Launch GPS Satellites on Reused Rockets

Previously, the U.S. Space Force modified SpaceX’s contracts to launch two upgraded GPS satellites using previously flown Falcon 9 boosters. This move provides a cost saving of $64 million over launching the satellites with all-new Falcon 9 rockets.

The Space Force awarded contracts to launch five of the six planned GPS III satellites to SpaceX, with the sixth launch being conducted by the United Launch Alliance. With the modifications to allow for reused boosters, the contracts are now worth $469.8 million – still a significant price tag, perhaps, but a little more affordable in an environment in which the demand for the launch of military-owned hardware is not going to go down anytime soon.

The new GPS III satellites are meant to replace the aging GPS satellites that are currently in orbit. According to Lockheed-Martin, which is manufacturing them, the new GPS satellites will possess three times better accuracy and anti-jamming technology that is eight times better than the existing GPS satellites. They are expected to last up to 15 years once they are launched.

The GPS III SV04 satellite was launched last November with live streaming of the launch being broadcast in the below video, and the Space Force has decided to stipulate that the booster that was used for that satellite be reused for GPS III SV05. The SV05 satellite is set to launch as early as next Thursday. The Space Force had delayed approval for reusing boosters so that it could better understand SpaceX’s methodology for this less expensive option.

“In preparation for this first-time event we’ve worked closely with SpaceX to understand the refurbishment processes and are confident that this rocket is ready for its next flight,” said U.S. Space Force Space and Missiles Systems Center deputy mission director Dr. Walter Lauderdale. “We are certainly open to using other boosters, not just ones that have flown [for Space Force].”

Despite the Space Force’s abundance of caution, SpaceX is no stranger to government contracts for launch services now that it has won its previous legal battles with the U.S. military and ULA, in which it accused both parties of conspiring to block competitors like SpaceX from successfully bidding on launch contracts. SpaceX has already flown and reflown boosters and both the Crew and Cargo versions of its Dragon spacecraft for NASA. The next Crew Dragon mission, officially called Crew-3, is set to launch as early as Halloween.

Between the launch of Crew-2 and return of Crew-1, the International Space Station hosted a record-setting 11 astronauts and cosmonauts. It also marked the first time that two privately owned spacecraft were docked to the space station at the same time.

On the military side, the Department of Defense recently selected SpaceX to launch a laser communications experiment. It also received a $149 million contract from the Space Development Agency to build and launch a satellite that can detect and track incoming missiles.

Once SpaceX has GPS III SV05 launched, the next launch of a GPS satellite is expected to occur in Q3 2021. Both satellites will launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida.