|The GPS III Non-Flight Satellite Testbed.|
The Global Positioning System satellite system that first went operational in the mid-1990s has revolutionized everything from business supply chain management to family summer vacation road trips with the ability to take signals beamed from those satellites and instantly compute exactly where you are on Earth.
But plans for the latest generation of GPS satellites, GPS III, are running substantially behind schedule due to technical problems faced by defense contracting giant Lockheed Martin and a subcontractor, Exelis Inc.’s Rochester-based Geospatial Systems Division.
Exelis earlier this fall shipped the first Navigation Payload Element to the U.S. Air Force for testing and then delivery to Lockheed Martin for integration into the rocket. That is three years later than originally expected.
The original timetable of the GPS III program had the first of those eight Lockheed Martin-built satellites going into orbit by Halloween. Now that first GPS III launch is expected to be sometime in 2016. “The Air Force sets the actual launch dates,” said Chip Eschenfelder, spokesman for Lockheed Martin’s Colorado-based Space Systems business.
Exelis declined to comment for this report, referring questions to the Air Force.
Eschenfelder said Lockheed Martin and Exelis in 2013 discovered development issues with that first Navigation Payload Element “which required further work.”
“The delays have been driven by first-time development and integration issues, including design changes to eliminate ... signal interference within the satellite,” he said. “It is important to understand the GPS III navigation payload is not just an upgrade to legacy GPS navigation payloads. It is an entirely new product.”
The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in a statement said, “The solution to this problem has been identified” and the satellite’s Mission Data Unit — essentially the satellite’s computer — “is expected to be fully qualified next summer.”
One of the GPS system’s primary functions is for military applications, missile guidance and reconnaissance. The major upgrade to GPS III is a high-power jam-resistant military code, as well as better security, said Capt. Caitlin Suttie, Air Force Space Command spokeswoman. “It’s the next step in GPS technology, just like the iPhone 6,” she said.
GPS III “will deliver three times better accuracy, provide up to eight times improved anti-jamming capabilities for our military users, and include enhancements which extend spacecraft life to 15 years — 25 percent longer than the GPS IIF satellites being launched today,” said Eschenfelder.
While Lockheed Martin is contracted for eight satellites, that will be only the start of the GPS III constellation. “We try to have upwards of 20 for redundancy,” Suttie said.
Exelis’ GPS business — based in New Jersey but part of Geospatial Systems — is Lockheed Martin’s subcontractor handling the navigation payload element, which actually generates the GPS signals for civilian and military users.
“Without the navigation payload, there would be no GPS,” Eschenfelder said.
Exelis’ role in future GPS III satellites is somewhat up in the air. Lockheed Martin late last year put out a request for information looking for alternate payload providers.
The Air Force and Lockheed Martin are reworking the contract “to play out an efficient and affordable delivery schedule” for the eight GPS III satellites that accounts for the delays in the first, the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center said in a statement in response to questions.
And while Lockheed Martin is contracted to build those eight, “the Air Force is conducting market research to explore the industry base to determine if there is a viable GPS III Production Readiness alternate source, including an alternative navigation payload,” according to Space and Missile Systems Center.
Lockheed Martin’s Eschenfelder said the company “had discussions with several companies” about building navigation payloads, though he declined to give further details.
“Issuing (a request for information) is a normal business practice,” he said. “We regularly do this for all our programs to better understand what technology industry has to offer. In the end, this allows us to offer the best available capabilities to our customers.”
Once that the navigational payload has been delivered to Lockheed Martin, Eschenfelder said, “Exelis will be into the production phase, where the company has historically performed very well.”