Tue, Dec 18, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Next generation of GPS satellites headed to space

AP, DENVER, Colorado

Lockheed Martin staff work on the first GPS III satellite inside the anechoic test facility at the firm’s complex south of Denver, Colorado, on March 22, 2016.

Photo: AP

After months of delays, the US Air Force is about to launch the first of a new generation of GPS satellites designed to be more accurate, secure and versatile.

However, some of their most highly touted features would not be fully available until 2022 or later because of problems in a companion program to develop a new ground control system for the satellites, US government auditors said.

The satellite is scheduled to lift off today from Cape Canaveral, Florida, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It is the first of 32 planned GPS III satellites that would replace older ones in orbit.

Lockheed Martin is building the new satellites outside Denver, Colorado.

GPS is best-known for its widespread civilian applications, from navigation to time-stamping bank transactions.

The US Air Force has estimated that 4 billion people worldwide use the system.

However, it was developed by the US military, which still designs, launches and operates the system.

The US Air Force controls a constellation of 31 GPS satellites from a high-security complex at Schriever Air Force Base outside Colorado Springs.

Compared with their predecessors, GPS III satellites would have a stronger military signal that is harder to jam — an improvement that became more urgent after Norway accused Russia of disrupting GPS signals during a NATO military exercise this fall.

GPS III would also provide a new civilian signal compatible with other countries’ navigation satellites, such as the EU’s Galileo system. That means civilian receivers capable of receiving the new signal would have more satellites to lock in on, improving accuracy.

“If your phone is looking for satellites, the more it can see, the more it can know where it is,” Lockheed Martin spokesman Chip Eschenfelder said.

The new satellites are expected to provide location information that is three times more accurate than the current satellites.

Current civilian GPS receivers are accurate to within 3m to 10m, depending on conditions, said Glen Gibbons, the founder and former editor of Inside GNSS, a Web site and magazine that tracks global navigation satellite systems.

With the new satellites, civilian receivers could be accurate to within 1m to 3m under good conditions and military receivers could be a little closer, he said.

Only some aspects of the stronger, jamming-resistant military signal would be available until a new and complex ground control system is available, and that is not expected until 2022 or 2023, said Cristina Chaplain, who tracks GPS and other programs for the US Government Accountability Office.

Chaplain said the new civilian frequency would not be available at all until the new control system is ready.

The price of the first 10 satellites is estimated at US$577 million each, up about 6 percent from the original 2008 estimate when adjusted for inflation, Chaplain said.

The US Air Force in September said that it expects the remaining 22 satellites to cost US$7.2 billion, but the office estimated the cost at US$12 billion.

The first GPS III satellite was declared ready nearly two years behind schedule. The problems included delays in the delivery of key components, retesting of other components and a decision by the US Air Force to use a Falcon 9 rocket for the first time for a GPS launch, Chaplain said.

That required extra time to certify the Falcon 9 for a GPS mission.

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