NEXT-GEN­ER­A­TION OF GPS SATEL­LITES ARE HEADED TO SPACE

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Af­ter months of de­lays, the U.S. Air Force is about to launch the first of a new gen­er­a­tion of GPS satel­lites, de­signed to be more ac­cu­rate, se­cure and ver­sa­tile.

But some of their most highly touted fea­tures will not be fully avail­able un­til 2022 or later be­cause of prob­lems in a com­pan­ion pro­gram to de­velop a new ground con­trol sys­tem for the satel­lites, gov­ern­ment au­di­tors said.

The satel­lite is sched­uled to lift off Tues­day from Cape Canaveral, Florida, aboard a SpaceX Fal­con 9 rocket. It’s the first of 32 planned GPS III satel­lites that will re­place older ones now in or­bit. Lock­heed Mar­tin is build­ing the new satel­lites out­side Den­ver.

GPS is best-known for its wide­spread civil­ian ap­pli­ca­tions, from nav­i­ga­tion to time-stamp­ing bank trans­ac­tions. The Air Force es­ti­mates that 4 bil­lion peo­ple world­wide use the sys­tem.

But it was de­vel­oped by the U.S. mil­i­tary, which still de­signs, launches and op­er­ates the sys­tem. The Air Force con­trols a con­stel­la­tion of 31 GPS satel­lites from a high-se­cu­rity com­plex at Schriever Air Force Base out­side Colorado Springs.

Com­pared with their pre­de­ces­sors, GPS III satel­lites will have a stronger mil­i­tary sig­nal that’s harder to jam — an im­prove­ment that be­came more ur­gent af­ter Nor­way ac­cused Rus­sia of dis­rupt­ing GPS sig­nals dur­ing a NATO mil­i­tary ex­er­cise this fall.

GPS III also will pro­vide a new civil­ian sig­nal com­pat­i­ble with other coun­tries’ nav­i­ga­tion satel­lites, such as the Eu­ro­pean Union’s Galileo sys­tem. That means civil­ian re­ceivers ca­pa­ble of re­ceiv­ing the new sig­nal will have more satel­lites to lock in on, im­prov­ing ac­cu­racy.

“If your phone is look­ing for satel­lites, the more it can see, the more it can know where it is,” said Chip Eschen­felder, a Lock­heed Mar­tin spokesman.

The new satel­lites are ex­pected to pro­vide lo­ca­tion in­for­ma­tion that’s three times more ac­cu­rate than the cur­rent satel­lites.

Cur­rent civil­ian GPS re­ceivers are ac­cu­rate to within 10 to 33 feet (3 to 10 me­ters), de­pend­ing on con­di­tions, said Glen Gib­bons, the founder and for­mer ed­i­tor of In­side GNSS, a web­site and mag­a­zine that tracks global nav­i­ga­tion satel­lite sys­tems.

With the new satel­lites, civil­ian re­ceivers could be ac­cu­rate to within 3 to 10 feet (1 to 3 me­ters) un­der good con­di­tions, and mil­i­tary re­ceivers could be a lit­tle closer, he said.

Only some as­pects of the stronger, jam­ming-re­sis­tant mil­i­tary sig­nal will be avail­able un­til a new and com­plex ground con­trol sys­tem is avail­able, and that is not ex­pected un­til 2022 or 2023, said Cristina Chap­lain, who tracks GPS and other pro­grams for the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice.

Chap­lain said the new civil­ian fre­quency won’t be avail­able at all un­til the new con­trol sys­tem is ready.

The price of the first 10 satel­lites is es­ti­mated at $577 mil­lion each, up about 6 per­cent from the orig­i­nal 2008 es­ti­mate when ad­justed for in­fla­tion, Chap­lain said.

The Air Force said in Septem­ber it ex­pects the re­main­ing 22 satel­lites to cost $7.2 bil­lion, but the GAO es­ti­mated the cost at $12 bil­lion.

The first GPS III satel­lite was de­clared ready nearly 2½ years be­hind sched­ule. The prob­lems in­cluded de­lays in the de­liv­ery of key com­po­nents, retest­ing of other com­po­nents and a de­ci­sion by the Air Force to use a Fal­con 9 rocket for the first time for a GPS launch, Chap­lain said. That re­quired ex­tra time to cer­tify the Fal­con 9 for a GPS mis­sion.

The new ground con­trol sys­tem, called OCX, is in worse shape. OCX, which is be­ing de­vel­oped by Raytheon, is at least four years be­hind sched­ule and is ex­pected to cost $2.5 bil­lion more than the orig­i­nal $3.7 bil­lion, Chap­lain said.

The De­fense Depart­ment has strug­gled with mak­ing sure OCX meets cy­ber­se­cu­rity stan­dards, she said. A Pen­tagon re­view said both the gov­ern­ment and Raytheon per­formed poorly on the pro­gram.

Raytheon has over­come the cy­ber­se­cu­rity prob­lems, and the pro­gram has been on bud­get and on sched­ule for more than a year, said Bill Sul­li­van, a Raytheon vice pres­i­dent in the OCX sys­tem.

Sul­li­van said the com­pany is on track to de­liver the sys­tem to the Air Force in June 2021, ahead of GAO’s es­ti­mates.

The Air Force has de­vel­oped work-arounds so it can launch and use GPS III satel­lites un­til OCX is ready to go.

While the first GPS III waits for liftoff in Florida, the sec­ond is com­plete and ready to be trans­ported to Cape Canaveral. It sits in a cav­ernous “clean room” at a Lock­heed Mar­tin com­plex in the Rocky Moun­tain foothills south of Den­ver.

It’s ex­pected to launch next sum­mer, although the ex­act date hasn’t been an­nounced, said Jonathon Cald­well, vice pres­i­dent of Lock­heed Mar­tin’s GPS pro­gram.

Six other GPS satel­lites are un­der con­struc­tion in the clean room, which is care­fully pro­tected against dust and other for­eign par­ti­cles.

“It’s the high­est-vol­ume pro­duc­tion line in space,” Cald­well said.

For the first time, the Air Force is as­sign­ing nick­names to the GPS III satel­lites. The first one is Ve­spucci, af­ter Amerigo Ve­spucci, the Ital­ian nav­i­ga­tor whose name was adopted by early map­mak­ers for the con­ti­nents of the Western Hemi­sphere.

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