WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has tapped the U.S. arm of British small-satellite specialist Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. to examine new approaches to satellite navigation that use small platforms to augment the service’s GPS constellation.

The Jan. 18 announcement by Surrey Satellite Technology-US LLC (SST-US) follows by one day comments by Gen. William L. Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, regarding the service’s interest in a small satellite to augment the GPS craft. The satellite would carry a navigation-only payload and would supplement coverage in hard-to-reach areas like urban canyons.

The current GPS satellites carry additional payloads for things like detection of nuclear detonations, Shelton noted.

In a press release, SST-US of Englewood, Colo., said it had received a contract from the Air Force Research Laboratory to “identify and analyze how small satellites can improve aspects of GPS system performance such as accuracy, coverage, and robustness at costs far below those of past procurements.” The study will examine how to make the GPS constellation more robust and resilient, including alternative architectures.

SST-US’s parent company, a division of Europe’s Astrium space hardware and services conglomerate, is arguably the world’s most prolific manufacturer of small satellites. The Surrey, England-based company has built a demonstration satellite for Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation and is a subcontractor to Germany’s OHB Technology in the latter’s role as a prime contractor on the operational Galileo satellites.

“GPS is a hugely successful and important program, but sustaining and modernizing the service requires a new approach to reduce its operating cost,” SST-US Chief Executive John Paffett said in a prepared statement. “Using smaller satellites forces us to consider the system requirements and implementation, and this drives us towards more innovative and optimal solutions.”

Speaking at a Defense Writers Group breakfast here, a tape of which was made available to SpaceNews, Shelton said the current GPS constellation is healthy and robust, consisting of several more than the 24 satellites needed for global coverage. In fact, he said, the Air Force two years ago “redeployed” the constellation to optimize coverage.

“We’ve done about all we can do — in fact we’ve done more than we’re supposed to do in terms of numbers of satellites,” Shelton said. “That’s why it’s important to look at this cheaper little navigation-only satellite. It is a small satellite that would provide augmentation should we need it.”

Shelton said such a satellite is only being studied at the moment but could be launched in three or four years. He noted, however, that the budgetary environment is making it extremely difficult to plan for that and other programs under his purview, which includes space and cyberspace.



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Warren Ferster is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews and is responsible for all the news and editorial coverage in the weekly newspaper, the spacenews.com Web site and variety of specialty publications such as show dailies. He manages a staff of seven reporters...