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SpaceX halts US satellite launch for national security mission

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Qatari communications satellite in November. The rocket was due to carry a US$500 million global positioning system (GPS) satellite built by Lockheed Martin Corp on Tuesday when it was stopped minutes before takeoff.

[ORLANDO] Elon Musk's SpaceX halted Tuesday's launch of a long-delayed navigation satellite for the US military, postponing for at least a day the space transportation company's first designated national security mission for the United States.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, carrying a roughly US$500 million global positioning system (GPS) satellite built by Lockheed Martin Corp, was due to take off from Florida's Cape Canaveral shortly after 1730 GMT but was stopped minutes before takeoff.

"This abort was triggered by the onboard Falcon 9 flight computer," a SpaceX official narrating the launch sequence said. He said SpaceX would attempt the launch on Wednesday morning.

SpaceX later tweeted that the Falcon 9 and payload remain healthy and that it delayed the launch because of an "out of family" reading on the rocket's first stage sensors.

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A successful launch would be a significant victory for Musk, a billionaire entrepreneur who spent years trying to break into the market for lucrative military space launches, long dominated by Lockheed and Boeing Co.

SpaceX sued the US Air Force in 2014 in protest over the military's award of a multibillion-dollar, non-compete contract for 36 rocket launches to United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Boeing and Lockheed.

SpaceX dropped the lawsuit in 2015 after the Air Force agreed to open up competition, according to SpaceX's website.

The next year, SpaceX won a US$83 million Air Force contract to launch the GPS III satellite, which will have a lifespan of 15 years, Air Force spokesman William Russell said by phone.

Tuesday's launch was to be the first of 32 satellites in production by Lockheed under contracts worth a combined US$12.6 billion for the Air Force's GPS III program, Lockheed spokesman Chip Eschenfelder said.

US Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Florida to attend the launch, which he called "an important step forward as we seek to secure American leadership in space."

"Once fully operational, this latest generation of GPS satellites will bring new capabilities to users, including three times greater accuracy and up to eight times the anti-jamming capabilities," said Mr Russell.

The GPS satellite launch was originally scheduled for 2014 but has been hobbled by production delays, the Air Force said.

The next GPS III satellite will launch in mid-2019, Mr Eschenfelder said, while subsequent satellites undergo testing in the company's Colorado processing facility.

The launch marks SpaceX's first so-called National Security Space mission as defined by the US military, SpaceX said.

The Hawthorne, California-based company has previously launched payloads for the Department of Defence in 2017 that were not designated as a National Security Space missions.

REUTERS