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Launch of GPS IIF-12 satellite
United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket rises from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, carrying the GPS IIF-12 satellite into space. (Credit: United Launch Alliance)

The last GPS Block IIF satellite built by the Boeing Co. was sent into orbit for the U.S. Air Force today, filling out a set of a dozen.

United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket carried the 3,500-pound GPS IIF-12 satellite into space from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at the start of today’s launch window, at 8:38 a.m. ET (5:38 a.m. PT). Hours later, the rocket’s Centaur upper stage put the satellite into a 12,700-mile-high orbit.

Today’s launch was the first one of the year for United Launch Alliance, which is a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture.

The 12 Block IIF satellites are part of the Air Force’s Global Positioning System constellation, which provides navigation data for users worldwide. Those users range from Air Force controllers calling in air strikes to drivers, sailors and hikers trying to figure out how to get where they want to go.

The first Block IIF satellite was sent into orbit in 2010. Now that the set is complete, the Air Force is looking ahead to the first Block III satellite, which is expected to launch next year for the GPS-3 constellation. The next-generation satellites will provide improvements in accuracy and reliability for civilian navigation, plus upgraded anti-jamming and security capabilities for military signals.

Lockheed Martin won the contract to build the Block IIIA satellites for the Air Force. GPS-3 satellites are expected to be put into orbit by United Launch Alliance or SpaceX. Over the past few months, the bidding process for GPS-3 launch contracts has become the focus of debate between ULA and the Pentagon.

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