Launch of First GPS 3 Satellite Now Not Expected Until 2017

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WASHINGTON — The first of the U.S. Air Force’s newest generation of positioning, navigation and timing satellites is now expected to launch in 2017 rather than in 2016 as previously expected, according to an official with Lockheed Martin, the program’s prime contractor.

Mark Valerio, vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin’s military space business, said while he is preparing the first GPS 3 satellite to be available for launch as early as the end of this year, he expects the Air Force will slot the satellite to launch in the first quarter of 2017. Accommodating a 2017 launch date likely would require placing the satellite into short-term storage, he said.

That satellite originally was projected to launch as early as 2014 but technical difficulties, primarily with the main payload built by subcontractor Exelis, have delayed the program. The payload issues have been resolved, Valerio said.

Mark Valerio
Mark Valerio, vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin’s military space business. Credit: Lockheed Martin

The exact launch date for the first GPS 3 satellite will depend on the health of the existing constellation, the availability of launch slots and synchronization with the ground system, Valerio said in a briefing with reporters Feb. 18. He said he expects a launch date decision in March.

The GPS 3 ground system, known as the Operational Control Segment, also has faced a series of delays. Air Force officials, worried the ground system would not be ready for the first launch, in February disclosed plans for Lockheed Martin to field an interim control capability as a backup.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver is building eight GPS 3 satellites under a multibillion-dollar contract that includes options for up to four more.

The satellites are designed to provide more accurate navigation signals that are also more resistant to both intentional and unintentional interference than those from earlier-generation craft.

The Air Force has said it is looking for possible challengers to Lockheed Martin to build the next batch of satellites. Among the companies that have expressed interest are Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, California, which built earlier generations of GPS craft, and Northrop Grumman Aerospace of Redondo Beach, California.

“The best thing I can do is keep marching along the plan we have,” Valerio said. “We’re certainly not afraid of the competition.”

Lockheed Martin has submitted three sets of plans to help reduce costs to the current satellite design, Valerio said.

Falcon 9
SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets are being considered by the Air Force and Lockheed Martin to launch GPS 3 satellites. Credit: SpaceX

Lockheed Martin and the Air Force also are examining the feasibility of launching GPS 3 satellites aboard SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets, which are thought to be considerably cheaper than the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets currently used to launch U.S. military payloads.

“There is nothing that we have seen so far that we could not launch off Falcon 9,” Valerio said.

Meanwhile, Valerio said it would be about two years before Lockheed Martin might see any kind of commitment from international partners that would enable the company to begin building any follow-on Mobile User Objective System narrowband communication satellites. Lockheed Martin is under contract to build five of those satellites for the U.S. Navy, with the fifth scheduled to launch next year.

The Navy has yet to commit to any additional satellites, but Lockheed officials are hopeful that partners such as Canada will help fund construction of at least one more. Although there is a break in the MUOS production line, Valerio said a recent Lockheed Martin Space Systems restructuring would enable the company to begin work on another satellite in relatively short order.

The Navy is not expected to begin an analysis of alternatives for meeting its future narrowband communications needs until sometime next year.