Next-generation GPS satellite ready for testing

GPS III satellite illustration

An artist’s rendition of a GPS III satellite in orbit.

Lockheed Martin said this week it has linked the business end of the Air Force's next-generation GPS III satellite to its propulsion system, moving the program a step closer to a projected 2017 launch of the maneuverable space vehicle.

The first of a projected fleet of 32 Air Force GPS III satellites will now move a testing phase at Lockheed Martin's Denver satellite manufacturing and test facility.

The Air Force Space Command has recently stressed the need for "resilient" satellite as tensions grow with China and Russian over "counterspace" capabilities. GPS III satellites include an up to eight-fold increase in anti-jamming capability along with a propulsion core that would allow the navigation satellite to maneuver in geostationary orbit.

Those capabilities are among the upgrades that will likely become standard features as Space Command attempts to harden its communications, navigation and classified spy satellites. According to a Lockheed fact sheet (PDF) on the GPS III constellation, the satellite design includes "bus flexibility for future capability insertion."

While the recent integration is being lauded as a major milestone by some, including Lockheed, the GPS III program has been marred by setbacks. Cuts in the president’s fiscal 2015 budget reduced the number of GPS III satellites the Air Force was going to purchase, from two satellites per year for the next two years followed by three satellites per year for the successive three years, to one per year for the next two years. Meanwhile, the Air Force launched its ninth GPS IIF satellite to upgrade its GPS constellation back in March. GPS III was billed as an affordable replacement for the GPS II series, manufactured by Boeing. Fortunately for the Air Force, the current generation of GPS II satellites is continuing to meet mission requirements much longer than originally intended.

Testing for the first GPS III includes subjecting the navigation payload and a functional bus containing electronics that manage satellite operations to the simulated rigors of space. The first GPS III satellite, designated space vehicle 01, will undergo thermal vacuum testing beginning this summer, the contractor said. The test will be used to validate the satellite's design and manufacturing processes before they are adopted for building future satellites in the GPS III constellation.

GPS III satellite Lockheed

Technicians connect the GPS III payloads to its propulsion system.

Along with beefed up anti-jamming and on-orbit maneuvering capabilities, the GPS III constellation is designed to remain on station for as long as 15 years, or 25 percent beyond previous military GPS satellites. The next-generation birds also will provide a new programmable civilian signal that will make GPS III satellites the first to be interoperable with international global satellite systems.

Indeed, it's getting crowded up there: The European Union is currently deploying a civilian global navigation satellite system called Galileo. The EU program is currently in its validation phase.

China recently launched the 17th of its Beidou navigation system satellites.

Lockheed Martin is under contract with the Air Force to build the first eight GPS III satellites.

Mark Pomerleau contributed to this story.

About the Author

George Leopold is a contributing editor for Defense Systems and author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom."Connect with him on Twitter at @gleopold1.

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