The Global Positioning System (GPS) has been among the most far-reaching innovations of the past 50 years. Operated by the U.S. Air Force, the technology uses satellite signals to determine a precise location and synchronize time around the world. It’s been instrumental in the development of everything from drones and mobile maps to the infrastructure of our modern financial system and utility grid.
GPS doesn’t come from your phone. Few realize that it’s a complex network, comprising a constellation of advanced satellites in orbit, a sophisticated ground control system and signal receivers that today serve over a billion military, commercial and civilian users. The Air Force now is engaged in a major modernization program that will give the system even more advanced capabilities.
A critical component to this modernization is a new generation of satellites, known as “GPS III.” Developed by Lockheed Martin, GPS III is not just an upgrade but an entirely new, more resilient design to produce the most powerful GPS satellites ever. GPS III surpasses any of its predecessors with greater accuracy, improved anti-jamming capability and a longer on-orbit life. The pathbreaking technology will for the first time provide users around the world with greater connectivity by leveraging other global navigation satellite infrastructures.
GPS III is coming. In September 2017, the Air Force declared the first new satellite, Space Vehicle 01, “available for launch” with an expected liftoff in 2018. Just three months later, the second GPS III satellite successfully completed a grueling thermal vacuum (TVAC) test confirming its ability to face the harsh environment of space. Space Vehicle 02 is expected to be declared available for launch later in 2018. Production is underway of eight more satellites that will quickly be brought into service.
With its proven, low-risk, production-ready design, Lockheed Martin’s GPS III is committed to modernizing the GPS constellation.
A new GPS for a changing world
According to GPS.gov, today’s GPS constellation is made up of 31 operational satellites. Although all are active and performing well, about 60 percent of the fleet is operating beyond its design life; indeed one satellite has been in orbit for 20 years, well past its original planned 7.5-year design life. Not only is the system aging, but new capabilities are needed and better technology is available today.
Enter the Air Force’s GPS Modernization effort and the GPS III satellites. GPS III has more powerful signals, a newly expanded navigation payload with digital advances and a more resilient and longer-lasting 15-year design life. GPS III is taking technology to the highest level.
Precision is essential for military operations. GPS III’s signals are three times as accurate as those of current satellites, providing more exact location calculations for our armed forces. That means greater safety for troops and civilians alike, especially in urban areas. Meanwhile, GPS III’s new military-specific M-code signal has eight times the earlier anti-jamming capability, making it harder for adversaries to interfere.
As for civilian applications, GPS III satellites will be the first to broadcast L1C, a new common signal being adopted by other international Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), such as Europe’s Galileo. This means future GPS users worldwide will be able to connect not only to GPS III satellites, but to other international GNSS constellations sharing the L1C signal. With more satellite-receiver line-of-sight opportunities, user location pinpointing will improve not only in “urban canyons” like New York City, but also in rural valleys and behind hills and mountains.
Industry is set for a boost, too. Although it’s not widely known, GPS measures time as well as distance, and down to the atomic level, no less. It’s a tool that’s particularly relevant for financial services, which require consensus on when exactly a transaction takes place. You won’t notice, but when you withdraw money from an ATM or execute an order through your broker, GPS III’s atomic clock will help to ensure it goes smoothly.
GPS III in full production
In 2008, the Air Force chose Lockheed Martin to design and build GPS III, eventually ordering a total of ten satellites. It was a logical choice: the firm has been a GPS innovator for decades, having designed and built 12 GPS IIR satellites and eight of the modernized GPS IIR-M versions. These form the backbone of today’s fleet. In fact, Lockheed Martin-built satellites account for more than 60 percent of today’s GPS constellation and have collectively amassed more than 250 operational years.
Development of the advanced navigation payload for GPS III posed some initial challenges, but Lockheed Martin and its payload supplier overcame those issues with rigorous systems engineering. To date, four fully-tested, flight-worthy navigation payloads have been delivered and integrated into GPS III satellites, and four more are on track for delivery in 2018.
Today GPS III satellites are in full production at Lockheed Martin’s GPS III Processing Facility (GPF) outside Denver, Colo. The $128-million facility was designed in a virtual reality environment and is purpose-built for efficient satellite production.
The first GPS III satellite stands in one corner of the GPF, ready to be delivered. The Air Force declared it “available for launch” in September, and it’s waiting for the call to be shipped to the launch pad.
The Air Force’s second GPS III satellite successfully completed TVAC testing in December. Pitting a satellite against simulated extreme space temperatures and atmosphere, TVAC is the most comprehensive and perceptive test a satellite can undergo.
“Conquering this grueling test with a second satellite in 60 days further validates the integrity of GPS III design and gives us confidence that we’re on the right track for the satellites ahead of us,” said Mark Stewart, Lockheed Martin’s vice president of Navigation Systems and GPS III Program Manager. “Completing TVAC assures us that we have good parts, good components, good subsystems, a solid assembly process and a great full system continuing to build.”
Lockheed Martin’s third GPS III satellite was fully assembled in August and will begin environmental testing and undergo TVAC in 2018.
The fourth GPS III satellite is close behind. Lockheed Martin received its navigation payload in October, which is now integrated with the space vehicle. That satellite also is expected to be integrated into a complete space vehicle in February 2018 and then begin its own environmental testing.
Production on the fifth GPS III began in August 2017 and the sixth will start the process early in 2018. Components of six satellites, GPS III Space Vehicles numbered 05 to 10, are arriving at Lockheed Martin daily. To date, more than 70 percent of parts and materials for those satellites have been received.
All ten satellites should be in orbit by 2023.
Stewart credits the GPS III program success to the Air Force’s Back to Basics program. It emphasizes rigorous system engineering as well the use of simulators and an innovative GPS III satellite prototype, called the GPS III Nonflight Satellite Testbed (GNST), to address problems early on.
“It allowed us to prototype and get all the technical issues resolved while we were working on the first vehicles,” noted Stewart. “Doing so was a great way to reduce risk in the assembly process and stay on schedule going forward.”
The result is not just a battle-tested development approach, but a contractor ready for full production. “The Air Force is looking for a production-ready design, a production-ready facility, and a production-ready team,” said Stewart. “There’s no doubt that Lockheed Martin has all three of those elements.”
Designed with the future in mind
As the Air Force prepares to purchase its next batch of GPS III Follow On (GPS IIIF) satellites, Lockheed Martin is at the forefront with its low-risk, production-ready satellite.
Anticipating the Air Force would have new and expanding missions and that new technology would become available, Lockheed Martin designed its original GPS III with a flexible, modular architecture. “We can insert new technology and components right into our production line,” Stewart commented.
Lockheed Martin’s plans for the next tranche of GPS III include a fully digital navigation payload (up from the previous 70 percent digital) which will give the Air Force enhanced capabilities and increased producibility. The company also has developed a robust Regional Military Protection feature to help keep warfighters safer in contested environments.
Two other Air Force requirements for GPS IIIF, an accuracy-enhancing laser-retro reflector and a new global search and rescue payload, were already proven out during design reviews in 2013.
Future GPS III satellites also have the benefit of inherent risk reduction already proven out on the GNST and first GPS III satellite. By sharing a common design, they’re already compatible with the Air Force’s Next-Generation Operational Control Segment (OCX), now in development, and the existing GPS constellation.
Lockheed Martin’s goal is to build on its GPS legacy and continue providing the Air Force with an affordable, resilient and low-risk GPS III solution. Stewart noted, “We and our industry partners from over 250 aerospace companies from 29 states are proud to bring GPS III’s tremendous new capabilities to the men and women in our armed forces, as well as to the world.”