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Delta 4 soars into space with new GPS satellite

Irene Klotz, Spaceflight Correspondent
May 17, 2014, 8:08 UTC

Sen—After waiting a day for the weather to clear, an unmanned Delta 4 rocket soared through unseasonably cool and clear Florida skies on Friday evening to put the newest member of the widely used Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite navigational network into orbit.

The 20-story-tall booster, built and launched by United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, bolted off its seaside pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 8:03 p.m. EDT/0002 GMT.

With its towering plume of white smoke illuminated by the setting sun, the rocket soared out over the Atlantic Ocean to deliver the GPS 2F-6 satellite into an orbit 12,700 miles (20,450 km) above Earth.

The $245 million satellite, built by Boeing, is the sixth member of the newest-generation GPS satellites, which are used by the military, civilian government and a wide variety of commercial users for pinpoint navigation and timing services.

After a 30-day instrument checkout, 2F-6 will join 30 operational GPS satellites and one soon-to-be operational spacecraft launched in February.

The constellation, which requires a minimum of 24 spacecraft, also includes about seven partly operational satellites that could be put into service if needed.

That may seem like a lot, but Steve Steiner, chief of the Air Force’s GPS Space Systems Directorate, said the network includes many older spacecraft.

“We launched a whole bunch of these in order to get the constellation up and running in the early days and so you have large numbers of satellites that are all about the same age … and there’s always the possibility that you could have large numbers of failures in that aged group at one time,” Steiner told reporters during a prelaunch conference call.

Two more GPS satellites are slated to be launched in July and October. The entire 2F upgrade should be in orbit before the end of 2016.

With an on-orbit lifetime of 12 years, the new satellites include advanced atomic clocks for improved navigational accuracy, better anti-jamming technology for military signals and a new civilian signal that will eventually support commercial aviation search-and-rescue operations.