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SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (SpaceX via YouTube)

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket sent a next-generation GPS satellite into orbit today for the U.S. Air Force, marking a couple of firsts — as well as a “last.”

It’s the first GPS III spacecraft to reach space, marking the start of a transition that will triple the accuracy of the Global Positioning System and boost its capability to resist jamming by up to eight times.

It’s also the first official SpaceX launch of a national security payload for the Air Force under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, after a years-long process that saw SpaceX file a lawsuit against the federal government (and ultimately reach a settlement).

And the “last”? Today’s mission was the 21st and last launch for SpaceX in 2018, setting a new record for the California-based company. (Last year’s 18 marked its previous personal best.)

Liftoff had been delayed four times over the past week, due to unacceptable weather and a problem with sensor readings from the rocket.  But when the countdown at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station reached zero at 8:51 a.m. ET (5:51 a.m. PT), the Falcon 9 rocket rose smoothly into clear Florida skies.

The partial government shutdown had no effect on launch, because the Defense Department was fully funded through previous legislation. Some viewing areas around the Cape were closed, however.

Because of the challenging trajectory required for the GPS III’s orbit, SpaceX made no plans to recover the first-stage booster, and didn’t bother equipping it with landing legs or steering fins. After stage separation, the booster headed back down to a splashdown in the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, the second stage lofted the van-sized satellite, named Vespucci in honor of Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, toward medium Earth orbit. (America is another thing that’s named after Vespucci.)

Vespucci’s planned altitude is in the neighborhood of 12,550 miles. Once the satellite gets settled, it will augment the GPS system’s current constellation of 31 older-generation satellites, which provide positioning data for applications ranging from U.S. military operations to smartphone location finders. More than 4 billion people around the world make use of GPS data one way or another.

The GPS III satellite is also designed to be compatible with other navigational satellite systems, such as Europe’s Galileo constellation.

Going forward, the Air Force will rely on SpaceX as well as its main competitor, United Launch Alliance, to send nine more GPS Block IIIA satellites into orbit over the next five years.

2018 was a big year for SpaceX, highlighted by the first launch of the company’s triple-barreled Falcon Heavy rocket and the first triple-flown Falcon 9 booster. 2019 promises to be even bigger, with an agenda including the first crewed launch of a Dragon spaceship to the International Space Station.

The next year is also expected to bring the first short-hop flight tests for SpaceX’s Starship (formerly known as the BFR), a refuelable craft that plays the leading role in billionaire founder Elon Musk’s plans to send people around the moon and onward to Mars.

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