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2 SOPS disposes last GPS IIA satellite after 26 years

News by Airman 1st Class Jonathan Whitely
50th Space Wing Public Affairs Schriever Air Force Base

The 2nd Space Operations Squadron at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, initiated the disposal of the last operational GPS IIA satellite, satellite vehicle number 34, April 13-20.

The GPS satellite program currently uses 31 satellite vehicles to transmit precise position, navigation and timing signals to more than 6 billion users around the world. To support the Air Force’s GPS III modernization efforts, 2nd SOPS operators phase out older models to make room for the new GPS III satellites.

The disposal of SVN-34 marks the end of a 26.5-year era in which the satellite outlived its 7.5-year design life by 19 years.

“As we continue to manage the influx of GPS III (the newest iteration of GPS satellites) and maintaining other vehicles in a residual status, we have to be cognizant of effective risk management,” said Capt. Angela Tomasek, 2nd SOPS GPS mission engineering and analysis flight commander. “As SVN-34 continued to age, we had to manage its aging components and likelihood of having a critical malfunction. We are at a stage where we are confident in the robustness of the overall GPS constellation to remove the last remaining IIA vehicle.”

Disposal process. Units conduct satellite disposals when a satellite reaches the end of its operational life and no longer requires daily caretaking and maintenance.

“We push the satellite vehicle to a higher, less congested, ‘disposal orbit’ to eliminate the probability of collision with other active satellites,” Tomasek said. “[Then,] the vehicle is put into a safe configuration by depleting the leftover fuel and battery life and shutting off the satellite vehicle transmitters so no one else can access the satellite in the future.”

Once SVN-34 is in its final orbit, 2 SOPS will on April 20 hand over full tracking responsibility to the 18th Space Control Squadron at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, where it will be treated and cataloged like every other space object.

“This disposal marks the end of an era in GPS history,” said Lt. Col. Stephen Toth, 2nd SOPS commander. “There are senior leaders and long-time contractors [who] launched and operated the IIA satellites at the beginning of their careers [who] are nowhere to see it end. It is an opportunity to reflect on the legacy and heritage of 2 SOPS and GPS to see how far we have come.”

Feature image: Artist’s depiction of a GPS IIA satellite in orbit. (Image: USAF)

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