WASHINGTON — As many as six aerospace companies have responded to a request for information from Lockheed Martin to develop a space-based navigation payload similar to the one that has delayed the U.S. Air Force’s next-generation GPS 3 system, a senior Lockheed Martin official said.
The moves come as the Air Force leaders, already unhappy with delays to the GPS 3 program, have complained about a lack of competition in space-based navigation payloads. Exelis Corp. has been the sole provider of GPS payloads since the program’s beginning.
Mark Valerio, vice president of military space business at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, said in an interview at the Satellite 2014 conference here that the request was not a response to delays with the GPS 3 payload but instead part of the company’s standard procedure for doing business.
“We’re constantly canvassing the industrial base to see what’s out there,” Valerio said.
However, Valerio said that if one of the responses intrigued Lockheed Martin executives, the company might pursue it with an eye toward eventually incorporating it into the GPS 3 program.
Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver is under contract to build eight GPS 3 satellites, the first of which is slated to launch in 2016. The satellites are expected to be more accurate and reliable than previous generations of GPS craft.
Exelis Geospatial Systems of Rochester, N.Y., is supplying the payload, as it has for all previous generations of GPS satellites.
In December 2012, Exelis announced it had integrated and performed initial testing of a payload aboard a prototype GPS 3 satellite. But the company has struggled with the navigation payload since at least this past September.
In November 2013, Exelis officials said they believed “the known technical issues have been resolved” and that the initial flight payload was expected to be delivered in spring 2014. They said the delays stemmed from “first-time development and integration issues, including design changes to eliminate signal crosstalk,” which occurs when a signal broadcast on one circuit creates an undesired effect on another circuit.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office described the problem in a March 12 report as a “21-month anomaly.”
The first GPS 3 launch, until recently slated for 2015, has slipped to 2016, according to Air Force officials.
Valerio said he expects the navigation payload to be completed this year. “Everything else is basically done,” he said.
Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, has said the delay highlights the problem inherent in relying on one contractor for a critical technology.
Shelton has also made clear that the Air Force is extremely unhappy with Lockheed Martin and Exelis, a message Valerio said has come through loud and clear.
“Although we don’t believe this will result in any impact to our ability to provide gold-standard [positioning, navigation and timing] services to the world, we are concerned about the impact to the overall GPS 3 program,” Shelton said in written testimony to the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee March 12.
Exelis, like Lockheed Martin, emphasized that issuing the request for information is a regular part of the prime contractor’s job.
“Sourcing potential alternative providers is standard business practice,” Exelis spokeswoman Jane Khodos said in a March 13 email. “Exelis is taking every step necessary to execute successfully through rigorous testing.”
Khodos said the navigation payload hardware for the first satellite is built and in testing. “The GPS 3 navigation payloads are on track to meet all mission and quality requirements,” she added.
Nevertheless, other aerospace companies see an opportunity for business.
During a press briefing March 11 at the Satellite 2014 conference, Craig Cooning, vice president and general manager of Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, Calif., said the company proposed building its own navigation payload in its unsuccessful bid for the GPS 3 prime contract.
“Given some of the challenges, the government should consider, if not having two manufacturers [ of GPS satellites] then at least having two manufacturers of the payloads,” Cooning said. “Because of the volume of GPS orders, dual sourcing could be done.”
Peter B. de Selding contributed to this story.
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