After a week of delays, SpaceX successfully launched a Falcon 9 rocket on Sunday morning at 8:51 a.m. EST, it’s 21st launch of the year.
Carried to orbit atop the Falcon 9 rocket was a GPS III SV01 advanced GPS satellite, part of a network of next-generation satellites being installed in orbit by the U.S. Air Force. The mission, originally awarded to SpaceX in April, 2016, is considered a National Security Space mission, critical to national defense and is SpaceX’s first such mission.
The new GPS III SV01 satellite is part of a planned series of upgrades to the U.S. GPS network. Currently the Air Force maintains 31 GPS satellites, the first iteration of which launched between 1990 and 1997, while the most recent was launched in 2016. The GPS III SV01, with its state of the art technology, is the first of the next generation of satellites with more planned launches in 2019.
GPS III SV01, nicknamed Vespucci, in honor of Italian cartographer and explorer Amerigo Vespucci, will enable the Air Force to provide positioning, navigation, and timing information three times more accurate than that of data provided by other satellites in the GPS network. The information will help everyone from soldiers in the field to those trying navigate a new town.
Normally SpaceX attempts to land Falcon 9 first stages once they’ve separated from the rocket’s second stage. This time the weight and high altitude orbit of the payload meant most of the Falcon 9’s fuel would be expended during launch, leaving too little left to recover the rocket.
Despite not recovering the Falcon 9, SpaceX’s successful 21st launch smashed the company’s previous record of 18 launches in one year and having completed a mission deemed critical to national security is a sort of badge of honor to the pioneering rocket company. SpaceX will take on four additional GPS III missions, all of which will be launched on Falcon 9 rockets later in 2019.
READ MORE: SpaceX Launches Super-Accurate Next-Gen GPS Satellite for US Air Force [Space]