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The last Delta 4-Medium rocket is set to launch Thursday with a critical new GPS satellite

Team Vandenberg launched a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Medium+ (5,2) from Space Launch Complex-6 here at 4:12 p.m. PDT Tuesday, April 3, 2012. The launch was the Department of Defense’s first-ever Delta IV Medium launch vehicle configured with a 5-meter payload fairing and two solid rocket motors. (U.S. Air Force photo/Rodney Jones)

The iconic white and orange stripes of United Launch Alliance’s storied Delta 4 rocket will take to the skies for the last time in a medium configuration Thursday as it hauls an advanced GPS military satellite to orbit.

Scheduled to launch within a 27-minute launch window that opens at 9 a.m. from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s launch complex 37, the Delta 4 rocket will be carrying the second in a series of new advanced satellites called GPS III for the Air Force. The weather is looking 80% “go” for launch with some cloud cover and rain as the primary concerns, according to the 45th Weather Squadron.

If the launch is delayed a day, the weather conditions worsen to 70% favorable for launch.

It’ll be the last liftoff for Delta 4 in a medium configuration after 17 years of launches. ULA is phasing out the rocket to make way for its new Vulcan Centaur, which could launch from the Space Coast as soon as 2021. The Delta 4-Heavy still has another five remaining launches carrying large payloads through the early 2020s.

“This is the final Delta 4-Medium launch, and I want to recognize the contribution this rocket and the people behind it have made to national security,” said Col. Shane Clark, mission director for the GPS III mission, during a news media conference call.

Delta 4-Medium will get its send-off with an important payload on board — both for the military and for everyday users.

GPS has become such an integrated part of everyday life, said Bill Gattle, the president of Space Systems for L3Harris Technologies, which built the navigation technology on the satellite, that people may not recognize how many different systems rely on the satellites that provide global positioning.

“One of my favorite things because of kids is [to remind people that] Pok\u00e9mon Go would not be possible without GPS,” Gattle said, referring to the popular phone app. “It just has very far-reaching capability into our everyday lives.”

That’s why the Air Force has invested in a new class of GPS satellites that will eventually replace the ones on-orbit now with upgraded technology. Built by Lockheed Martin, the GPS III class of satellites started to launch to median Earth orbit, 10,900 nautical miles above Earth, on Dec. 23. The second satellite in what could one day be a set of as many as 32 will go to space, if all goes well, on Thursday.

GPS III satellites will connect more than 4 billion military, commercial and civil users with GPS around the world. For regular users, the satellites come equipped with the capability to connect with other GPS systems, like Europe’s Galileo, making it easier to stay connected overseas.

“On the ground if you’re in Europe, you’ll be able to pick up either one and use them,” Gattle said.

For military personnel in particular, the GPS satellite will provide three-times better accuracy and eight-times improved anti-jamming capabilities to protect the signals from being intercepted by other forces. The spacecraft will also be able to stay in orbit 15 years — about 25% longer than the GPS satellites on-orbit today.

Most importantly, the systems on these satellites are designed to be “hack proof,” Gattle said.

“[They have] information insurance, so we’d know if people were inside it,” he said. “This is the first time we will have that software protection.”

Those safeguards are particularly important at a time when insuring the nation’s assets in space against cyber attacks from other countries has increasingly become part of the conversation — so much so that it would be built into the mission of President Donald Trump’s proposed Space Force military branch.

“Space is scary and wonderful at the same time,” Gattle said. “It’s scary in the fact that we have an infrastructure that is at risk and wonderful because there is a ton of opportunity for us to make a difference. [The Apollo generation] were truly pioneers on the human front. We are really pioneering some new technology.”


© 2019 The Orlando Sentinel