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United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 blasts off with newest GPS bird

Irene Klotz, Spaceflight Correspondent
Jul 16, 2015, 0:35 UTC

Sen—An unmanned Atlas 5 rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Wednesday to put one of the last three satellites into orbit to complete the United States’ upgraded 2F series Global Positioning System network.

The 19-story tall rocket, built and flown by United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, bolted off its seaside launch pad at 11:36 a.m. EDT (1536 UTC). Tucked inside the booster’s 14-foot diameter nose cone was a 3,400-pound GPS 2F satellite, built by Boeing, the 10th of 12 planned in the new series.

Once in position more than 12,000 miles above Earth, the $245 million GPS 2F-10 will replace a 19-year-old previous generation GPS satellite, which will be decommissioned. The final members of the 2F constellation are slated to fly on Atlas 5 rockets in October 2015 and in February 2016.

The new 2F GPS satellites, which are designed to last 12 years, feature better accuracy, stronger anti-jamming protection and a commercial aviation search-and-rescue signal. The new satellite will join a network of 31 operational satellites and seven spares.

The network is used by the U.S. military, civilian agency and commercial users. "New ways to utilize GPS technology are emerging daily,” Michael Rokaw, an Air Force colonel who oversees the Global Positioning Systems Directorate's Space Systems Division, told reporters before launch.

Wednesday’s launch was the 55th Atlas flight since the booster debuted in August 2002. The rocket’s first stage is powered by the Russian-built RD-180 engine, purchases of which are now banned as part of trade sanctions the United States imposed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula last year.

The ban does not impact RD-180s used on non-military missions, so the Atlas 5 rockets earmarked for delivering Boeing’s Commercial Crew CST-100 capsules to the International Space Station for NASA, as well as other commercial missions, are not affected.

United Launch Alliance, however, is pressing for an exemption to the RD-180 ban so it can continue to buy the engines for Atlas 5 military flights until its new Vulcan rocketis ready to fly in 2019. The Vulcan will have U.S. engines made by either Blue Origin or Aerojet Rocketdyne.

For launches of the upcoming Lockheed-built GPS 3 satellites, which are expected to begin flying in 2017, the Air Force will let newly qualified SpaceX compete against United Launch Alliance for its business.


The Atlas V rocket at Space Launch Complex-41, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, carrying the Air Force's GPS IIF-10 satellite ahead of the launch. Image credit: ULA


The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket blasts off from Space Launch Complex-41, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, carrying the Air Force's GPS IIF-10 satellite on July 15, 2015. Image credit: ULA