SpaceX will launch a review The Space Force satellite on a previously used rocket later this week for the first time, which could cement SpaceX’s reusable rockets as safe for Space Force operations.
SpaceX has already launched three Space Force satellites into orbit on fresh rockets, with the first launch with a repurposed rocket scheduled for Thursday, June 17, with the launch of the GPS III SV05 satellite.
This satellite is the last piece of hardware that the Space Force needs in orbit to complete its network of M-Code satellites, which are supposed to be more resistant to jamming and cyberattacks.
SV05 will be the 24th M-Code satellite currently in orbit, according to Space Coast Daily, which is the minimum to start using the more secure GPS signal. However, other delays mean the signal won’t be operational until 2023.
But with this change to the original GPS satellite launch contract, the Space Force streamlined the process between launches and saved about $64 million, according to CNBC.
This launch is a significant mark of approval for SpaceX, as the Space Force now trusts the company’s used rockets with payloads deemed vital to national security. SpaceX had previously launched sensitive missions for the US military, but never with used rockets. These launches include a classified Air Force space drone and a National Reconnaissance Office spy drone.
Which rocket is reused?
The United States Air Force has awarded SpaceX five of the six GPS III satellite launches, although the initial launch of the first satellite in 2018 was with a disposable rocket.
The Air Force then allowed SpaceX to salvage the rockets used for the second and third launches for reuse in other missions — but not so far for military launches. (The Space Force wasn’t officially created until December 2019.)
The GPS III SV05 satellite will be SpaceX’s fourth launch, using the same Falcon 9 rocket used to launch the GPS III SV04 satellite in 2020, which was safely recovered after an eight-and-a-half-minute trip on the drone. Of course I still love you.
The rocket’s initial launch on October 2, 2020 had a problem that caused the mission to be aborted two seconds before liftoff, which turned out to be a stuck valve in the engine’s gas generator. The valve was replaced and the rocket successfully launched a month later on November 5, 2020.
Walter Lauderdale, deputy mission director at the US Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, told reporters that his department had reviewed more than 440 modifications made to the Falcon 9 between launches and performed nearly 400 verification steps.
“Since we’re using the same booster again, we didn’t have to look at all the construction documents for a first flight – we just had to look at what they did for the retrofit,” Lauderdale said, according to Air Strength Magazine.
And once that mission is complete, SpaceX can also use the rocket for other non-military missions — the Space Force does not claim exclusive use of the rocket.
What does this mean for SpaceX?
After the June 17 launch, the Space Force’s acceptance of repurposed SpaceX rockets only means life gets easier for both agencies.
“We continue to work with [SpaceX] and, looking ahead to the SV06 mission next year…we will work with them to determine what boosters are available,” Lauderdale said. “We are certainly open to using other boosters, not just the ones that have flown [for Space Force].”
SpaceX will no longer have to build new rockets for each Space Force launch, and the Space Force will not have to wait for those rockets to be built. And with no restrictions on reuse, that means SpaceX has also earned the trust to use rockets that have flown more than twice on Space Force missions.
It also gives the Space Force experience in reviewing and validating reusable rockets, which will likely be used in other projects.
For example, the Space Force announced earlier this year that it was expanding its “Rocket Cargo” program, which will attempt to use spacecraft to quickly transport cargo around the world. The economy of this scheme only works when the rocket is reused, and SpaceX is one of two companies working publicly with the Space Force on the initiative.
But the future of SpaceX’s military rocket reuse rests entirely on SpaceX’s successful launch from Cape Canaveral this Thursday, June 17. Launch is scheduled for 12:09 p.m., with a 15-minute launch window. If conditions are unfavorable, another launch window is scheduled for 12:05 the following day, June 18. SpaceX will attempt to recover the Falcon 9 rocket booster from the drone called Just read the instructions.