Next-Gen GPS Satellites Headed to Space12/17 06:08
DENVER (AP) -- 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
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
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,
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 2 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
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
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
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