WASHINGTON — A rideshare delay has pushed back the launch of the U.S. military’s new experimental navigation satellite to 2023, but the Air Force Research Laboratory says it can use the extra time to reduce risks and conduct more ground testing.

Navigation Technology Satellite 3, originally set for launch in 2022, will help guide future GPS satellites, a priority area for the military as the technology has become easier to spoof and jam.

Designated as one of AFRL’s first Vanguard programs — projects the lab believes can deliver transformative capabilities to war fighters — the satellite will demonstrate new positioning, navigation and timing capabilities while supplementing the existing GPS constellation. Among other features, NTS-3 will feature steerable beams for regional coverage and a software-defined payload that can be reprogrammed on orbit.

AFRL noted the delay in a media roundtable Wednesday. AFRL Commander Brig. Gen. Heather Pringle said that shift was out of the lab’s control since the satellite will launch as a rideshare with a U.S. Space Force payload, and that launch had been pushed back.

“It was manifested as a rideshare through the space test program in partnership with the Space Force Space Operations Command. It is currently set to launch — at least the satellite portion — in 2023,” Pringle said of the delay. “It’s because it’s a rideshare, and so we’re not driving this schedule.”

However, Pringle said the lab would use the delay to its advantage, conducting more ground experimentation and risk reduction in the interim.

“As far as the ground equipment and the other aspects of the program, we’ll continue to develop, experiment and look for new opportunities to keep that up to date as well so when it goes into space that we are ready to hit the ground running,” said Pringle.

AFRL plans to experiment with the satellite in geosynchronous orbit for one year, testing new PNT signals and architectures on the spacecraft in addition to new ground-based command and control systems and software-defined radios. After AFRL completes its testing period with NTS-3, it will transition to the U.S. Space Force and integrate into the service’s other PNT capabilities, said Joel Mozer, the Space Force chief scientist.

L3Harris Technologies is the primary contractor for NTS-3, with the Air Force initially awarding the company an $84 million contract for the satellite in 2018. L3Harris Technologies completed its critical design review in August 2020.

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

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