WASHINGTON - The U.S. Air Force has completed critical design review of an experimental navigation satellite, clearing the way for fabrication to begin and keeping the launch on track for 2022.

The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Navigation Technology Satellite 3 (NTS-3) is one of the Air Force’s first Vanguard programs — platforms that can delivers remarkable new capabilities to the war fighter. NTS-3 is being developed to demonstrate new positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) technologies that will inform how future GPS satellites work. AFRL plans to operate the satellite in geosynchronous orbit for one year to experiment with new PNT signals and test new architectures. Beyond the space-based test vehicle itself, NTS-3 will also demonstrate new ground-based command and control as well as new software-defined radios.

And, once on orbit, NTS-3 could provide immediate support to the war fighter. The experimental satellite will augment the GPS constellation from geosynchronous orbit, providing a geographically focused signal.

“The NTS-3 Vanguard is an experimental, end-to-end demonstration of agile, resilient space-based positioning, navigation, and timing,” Arlen Biersgreen, the NTS-3 program manager, said in a statement. “It has the potential for game-changing advancements to the way the Air Force provides these critical capabilities to war fighters across the Department of Defense.”

L3Harris is the prime contractor on NTS-3, and was awarded an $84 million contract for the experimental satellite in 2018. With the critical design review complete, the company can now move forward with fabrication, demonstration and testing. The NTS-3 contract includes a follow-on option for production of an entire constellation, if the Air Force chooses to exercise it.

“Collaboration with our customers has enabled us to move rapidly through important milestones to design this experimental satellite,” said Ed Zoiss, president of space and airborne systems at L3Harris. “Our goal is to deliver new signals to support rapidly evolving warfighter missions.”

Due to scheduling, NTS-3 technology is unlikely to be included on the any of the GPS III satellites in production, but it will likely inform aspects of the subsequent GPS IIIF satellites which are set to go on orbit in the late 2020s. L3Harris is developing the payloads for those satellites as well.

Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.

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