Lockheed Martin’s full-sized, functional GPS 3 satellite prototype. Credit: Lockheed Martin

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Air Force awarded Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman separate $5 million contracts to demonstrate their ability to build the next batch of GPS 3 positioning, navigation and timing satellites, according to a May 5 announcement from the service.

The contracts set the stage for a competition among the three contractors to build as many as 22 GPS 3 satellites, the first of which must be ready to launch in 2023. Such a deal would potentially be worth several billion dollars.

Currently Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver is under contract to build eight next-generation GPS 3 satellites, the first of which now is slated to launch in 2017.  Lockheed Martin’s $3.6 billion contract, awarded in 2008, includes options for up to four more satellites and the Air Force has told Congress it expects to execute options for at least two of those satellites. The competition would begin with the 11th satellite.

“Industry told us they were ready to compete for the GPS 3space vehicles. We look forward to working with Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman to assess the feasibility of a follow-on, competitive production contract,” Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, commander of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, said in a May 5 release.

But the GPS 3 program is more than two years behind schedule, owing largely to problems with the advanced navigation payload developed by Exelis Geospatial Systems of Rochester, New York, now owned by Harris Corp. The delay frustrated the Air Force, which asked industry to consider developing competing designs.

As the Air Force moves toward awarding a new GPS 3 production contract it is asking Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to spend  26 months convincing  the Air Force they are could build  two “low-risk, high confidence” GPS satellites per year. A pair of options could add up to a year and $1 million to each contract.

At the end of this 26-38-month effort, the Air Force would pick one of the companies to build as many 22 GPS 3 satellites. Industry officials, however, say  it is more likely the Air Force will award a contract for eight to 12 satellites, which is the size of previous GPS satellites blocks.

The Air Force has said the next batch of satellites must provide the current GPS 3 capabilities plus several upgrades, including a redesigned nuclear detonation detection system. The new satellites also must be compatible with the GPS 3 ground system, known as the Operational Control Segment, which is facing its own delays.

None of the companies are strangers to GPS.

Boeing of El Segundo, California, built the satellite platform and major payload components for the GPS 2F and has been reinvesting in its GPS technology in recent years. Boeing is one of three companies that received an Air Force contract in January 2013 to study how to improve the accuracy, coverage and efficiency of the GPS constellation using smaller satellites.

Northrop Grumman Aerospace of Redondo Beach, California, is a subcontractor on the GPS 3 program.

“Northrop Grumman’s submission was based on an advanced prototype navigational payload built and tested in 2015, and leverages our rich legacy of developing and fielding critical national space systems,” Tim Frei, vice president of  communications systems at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, said in a May 6 email.

All three companies have been developing a new navigation payload using their either own internal research and development funds or, in Lockheed Martin’s, case by working with Harris. The new digital payloads are expected to be more readily re-produceable and the Air Force will require a demonstration of the new payload’s capabilities.

“With this contract award we intend to demonstrate how our design for GPS 3 can evolve to address the Air Force’s future needs and incorporate new technologies as they become available in a low risk manner,” Chip Eschenfelder, a Lockheed Martin spokesman, said in a May 5 statement. “It builds on our plan to drive costs down with increased efficiencies. “Our design for GPS III is beyond production ready.”

The first GPS 3 satellite is expected to launch no earlier than August 2017.

SMC said in February the production readiness contracts were one of their top acquisition announcements for 2016.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.