The first GPS III satellite is officially healthy and available for use by the military and civilians as of Jan. 13, thanks to a ground segment upgrade that provides the military command and control of the new, more powerful navigation satellite.
Many of its more advanced features, however, won’t be available until the full GPS III suite of satellites is on orbit, its next-generation ground segment is operational and war fighters have terminals that are built to access those features.
The 2nd Space Operations Squadron made the announcement Jan. 14, crediting the Contingency Operations upgrade — which the military refers to as Architecture Evolution Plan 8.0 — with making it possible to incorporate the first GPS III satellite into the rest of the GPS constellation.
“In order to operate GPS III, we first had to install Architecture Evolution Plan 8.0,” said Capt. Ryan Thompson, 2nd SOPS assistant director of sustainment. “This allowed our squadron to control the new satellite without a next-generation operational control system. The 2nd SOPS training and evaluations flight was able to expeditiously give our operators top-up training that allowed them to become comfortable with the new satellite.”
GPS III is a significant upgrade from prior GPS satellites. According to prime contractor Lockheed Martin, the new navigation satellites are three times more accurate, have a 25 percent longer design life than the next best GPS satellites, and boast an eight times stronger anti-jamming capability. It is also the first GPS satellite that provides a civilian signal that is compatible with other navigation satellite systems, such as the European Union’s Galileo constellation.
The new, advanced satellites were designed to operate with a new, advanced ground segment that has yet to materialize. The Next Generation Operational Control System (OCX) is years behind its original schedule according to a May Government Accountability Office report, though prime contractor Raytheon said at the time that OCX was on schedule for its new delivery date of June 2021. It delivered the first part of OCX, the launch and checkout system, in September 2017.
That revised delivery date, however, puts its availability years behind the launch of the first GPS III satellites. The first satellite was launched more than a year ago on Dec. 23, 2018, and the second was launched August 2019.
To ensure that the GPS III satellites weren’t sitting idly in orbit until OCX was available, the Air Force contracted with Lockheed Martin to build an upgrade to the current ground system to make it possible to utilize at least some of the GPS III capabilities in the interim. The Contingency Operations program was delivered June 2019, and the Air Force announced that the upgrade was nearing operational acceptance in October. With the Jan. 13 announcement, it is now being used to control the first GPS III satellite.
The second GPS III satellite is being managed on orbit by Lockheed Martin while the 2nd SOPS prepares for it to enter active use with its sibling. A third GPS III satellite is slated for launch later this year.
Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.