Ground antenna at Schriever Air Force Base, home of the 50th Space Wing. Credit: Air Force

WASHINGTON — While work continues on a costly new ground control system for the GPS 3 constellation, the Air Force is investing in major upgrades to the existing ground infrastructure so it can operate its newest GPS satellites made by Lockheed Martin.

The Air Force on Dec. 21 announced a $462 million contract award to Lockheed Martin to continue the modernization of the GPS ground control system that the company has been maintaining since 2013. The upgrades will allow the Air Force to operate the GPS 3 constellation with the existing ground system until 2025, Lockheed Martin said in a Jan. 10 news release.

The next-generation operational control system, known as OCX, is years behind schedule. The $6 billion system developed by Raytheon was designed to improve the cybersecurity of GPS. The Pentagon last year ordered a major review of OCX and directed Raytheon to accelerate the software development process. The company is expected to complete OCX Block 1 by June 2021.

The upgrades that Lockheed Martin will make to the legacy ground control system ensure that the positioning, navigation and timing missions of the new GPS 3 constellation can be performed with or without OCX.

After OCX Block 1 is installed into GPS satellite command and control operations, there will be an overlap with the legacy system during a transition period, Don Speranzini, Lockheed Martin’s director of range and depot for mission solutions said. Several GPS systems will continue to be sustained by the existing ground control network through 2025 after OCX Block 1 is installed, he told SpaceNews.

The upgraded system will support the military M-code, a secure anti-jam GPS signal that the Air Force plans to deploy in 2020. Lockheed Martin said the improvements include engineering modifications to the ground control system, including antennas and information networks. The upgrades funded in this contract will cover six Air Force GPS monitoring sites.

Following the Dec. 23 launch of the first GPS 3 satellite at Cape Canaveral, Florida, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, Air Force and Lockheed Martin engineers did a launch and checkout test using elements of OCX Block 0. Satellite control and operations will shift to the Air Force’s legacy ground control later this year after the initial set of upgrades are completed.

“On Jan. 2, we finished deploying the satellite’s antennas and solar panels during initial check out,”  Johnathon Caldwell, Lockheed Martin’s vice president for navigation systems, said in a statement to SpaceNews. “Next, the Air Force will begin testing the capabilities of GPS 3’s advanced navigation payload, a rigorous process they expect will take about six to nine months.”

Compared to the previous generation of  Global Positioning System satellites, GPS 3 has three times better accuracy and up to eight times improved anti-jamming, according to the Air Force. A new L1C civil signal will make it the first GPS satellite broadcasting a compatible signal with other international global navigation satellite systems, like Europe’s Galileo.

The Air Force today has 31 GPS satellites in service. Lockheed Martin is under contract to manufacture 10 GPS 3 spacecraft and 22 follow-on GPS 3F satellites over the next decade. The second GPS 3 satellite is scheduled to launch in 2019. Vehicles 3 through 8 are now in various stages of assembly and test.

Raytheon said the OCX Block 0 launch and checkout system will support the launch of future GPS 3 satellites. The system has “achieved the highest level of cybersecurity protections of any Department of Defense space system,” Bill Sullivan, OCX program manager at Raytheon, told SpaceNews.

He said the company is speeding up software coding so it can deliver OCX Block 1 by June 2021. “We are on a path to hit that.”

Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord told reporters last month that OCX is one of a handful of programs she watches closely because of past performance problems. “I think it’s a program that is not where we want it to be right now, but one which has improved tremendously over the last six months,” said Lord. “I’d like to see rapid software coding and testing so we’re fixing errors, and I‘d like us to continue to come down on cost and improve schedule.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...