CACI to launch experimental satellite to demonstrate alternative to GPS navigation

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The navigation technology to be tested is two-way time transfer from space

WASHINGTON – U.S. defense contractor CACI International is funding an experiment to demonstrate space technologies for military use, including an alternative to GPS navigation. 

As part of the company’s plan to grow its space business,  CACI is launching two demonstration payloads on a York Space satellite scheduled to fly to low Earth orbit in January aboard the SpaceX Transporter 7 rideshare. 

“We’re looking at an alternative PNT [positioning, navigation and timing] solution that will work in a contested space domain,” CACI’s president and CEO John Mengucci said during a third-quarter fiscal year 2022 earnings call.

“It won’t completely replace GPS, but it will support systems out there when GPS signals are jammed or when they’re attacked,” he said. 

Non-GPS navigation from space is expected to become a significant business opportunity, Mengucci added. The military is looking for alternatives that are “resilient and less vulnerable to jamming.”

The navigation technology that will be tested is called two-way time transfer – a technique that has been used for many years in timing applications on the ground. Two-way time transfer in space means the satellite sends a timing signal and a receiver on the ground or aboard an aircraft sends a signal simultaneously back to the satellite. 

If the experiment is successful, CACI plans to offer the two-way time transfer PNT service to the military and other government agencies. The company does not plan to build its own satellites but would work with satellite operators that are deploying large constellations to have them host the payload. A potential customer is the U.S. Space Development Agency which is looking for alternative PNT systems to ensure its sensor satellites in low Earth orbit can accurately track enemy missiles without relying on GPS. 

The second payload on this mission is for electronic signals surveillance. CACI is repurposing an electronic warfare sensor system currently used by U.S. special operations forces on the ground to collect signals intelligence. That technology was developed by Mastodon Design, a company CACI acquired in 2019.

The sensor collects signals emitted by adversary radios or jammers and geolocates those signals. Mengucci said the company wants to demonstrate that technology from space which would provide a more persistent capability and global coverage if hosted on a large number of satellites. 

“These are great examples of taking exquisite terrestrial capabilities and investing internally to deploy them in space,” he said. 

Both the navigation and the electronic warfare payloads were built with software-defined radios from CesiumAstro, a supplier of space-qualified electronics.