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Considering GPS III in light of a PNT wager

August 10, 2016  - By

It was not a big wager as wagers go, at least not in monetary value, but the underlying premise of the wager spoke volumes. It all began innocently enough in 2005 when the first test, or proof of concept, Galileo satellite known as GIOVE-A was launched.

In March of that year, a group of PNT experts made a simple wager that there will be:

  • 10 or fewer operational Galileo satellites by 12/31/15


  • 11 or more operational Galileo satellites by 12/31/15
Galileo's GIOVE-A retired in June 2012.

Galileo’s GIOVE-A retired in June 2012.

About 20 PNT experts took the bet, evenly divided on both sides, which essentially said that given that the first test (GIOVE) Galileo satellites were launched in 2005 and 2008 respectively, surely there would be at least 10 operational satellites on orbit or about one per year by 2015.

The stakes were modest, but as I said, the import of the faith (or lack of faith) in the European Union and its ability and understanding of the difficulties involved in the Galileo endeavor spoke volumes. As the chief scientist at Air Force Space Command stated at the time, “This is rocket science; this is hard.”

Chutzpah and/or naïveté

But the Europeans refused to believe it was a very hard problem. Indeed, after the second GIOVE launch, GIOVE-B in 2008, the European ministers announced, with incredible chutzpah and/or naïveté, that the Galileo constellation would be fully operational (24 fully operational on-orbit satellites) by 2013.

Of course, nothing of the sort has happened. Following the in-orbit validation (IOV) satellites, the first operational satellite launch did not occur until October 2011, almost six years later.

As of May 2016, there were 12 operational Galileo satellites on orbit along with two in early orbit or checkout stages — a far cry from the predicted 24 operational satellites. This is not a criticism of the Galileo system; rather, a validation of those who took the pessimistic side of the wager and of the chief scientist who clearly stated the obvious: this is indeed, as a popular euphemism states, a DARPA hard problem.

So the Europeans have been going about this PNT business since the initial decision to proceed in 2003 — 13 years. The United States has been producing and launching GPS satellites continuously since the first test launch of a NAVSTAR satellite in 1977 (39 years), with a continuously fully operational system (FOC) since 1995 (21 years), and guess what? It is still a hard problem. No one denies that. Which brings us to GPS III.

GPS III Update

Since the United States — specifically the United States Air Force (USAF) — has been in the space-borne PNT business longer than any other nation, you would think we would have this down by now. But it is still a hard problem with, fortunately, a long string of successes and very few (only two) failures.

To date, the U.S. government has launched a total of 72 GPS satellites. There are 31 active operational GPS SVs (satellite vehicles) on orbit, with seven additional in residual or test status; 32 have been retired into a parking orbit where they will not interfere with the operational constellation. That equates to 1.85 GPS satellites launched per year on average, or one every 6.5 months — an enviable record, failures and all.

Plus, there are GPS IIA satellites still on orbit that have been there for more than 22 years. Not bad for a satellite built to last (contracted service life) for 7.5 years.

Amazingly, the payloads on every GPS satellite to date were built, in part, in partnership with or completely by one company, now known as Harris, nee Exelis, nee ITT. Of course, the complexity of the payloads being built by Harris for the GPS III satellites is a far cry from the payloads built in 1975 for launch in 1977. According to GPS III program manager and VP Mark Stewart and his cohorts at Lockheed Martin (LMCO), the aerospace company building the GPS III satellites, GPS III

“…will deliver three times better accuracy, provide up to eight times improved anti-jamming capabilities and extend spacecraft life to 15 years [ed. contracted life], 25 percent longer than the [ed. latest family of satellites on orbit today]. GPS III’s new L1C civil signal … will make it the first GPS satellite to be interoperable with other international global navigation satellite systems.”

While many of you may look upon that LMCO statement as marketing hype, in fact it is a rather incredible prophesy. To a PNT expert it translates to: almost all GPS users globally will have sub-meter level positional accuracy from a group of signals that will rarely if ever be completely jammed, from an SV with a projected lifetime of 30 years that has more signals and greater signal strength, flexibility and interoperability than ever before. By the numbers GPS is still, far and away, the world’s gold standard.

So exactly where are we in relation to a launch of the first evolutionary GPS III satellite? After all, the last IIF launch, number 12 in the series, built by Boeing, occurred in February, so by the law of averages we should have the first GPS III launch later this month. That is not going to happen, but then what is a few months among friends when iterated over 39 years?

Currently the first GPS III launch date, according to the USAF, is scheduled for May 2017. All indications are the government is on track to meet that date with, interestingly enough, the availability of a suitable launch vehicle being the LIMFAC (limiting factor), not the availability of an GPS III SV to launch.

SV 01 in testing at Lockheed Martin's Denver facility. (Photo: LMCO)

SV 01 in testing at Lockheed Martin’s Denver facility. (Photo: LMCO)

According to my sources, GPS III SV-01 is fully integrated, has completed all environmental testing and is essentially ready to ship to Cape Canaveral,. It would be available for launch (AFL) sometime before the end of the calendar year if there were a launch vehicle, a ground control system and range availability.

GPS III SV-02 will undergo full integration (“core-mating”) completion sometime this fall and — following successful completion of its environmental tests — should certainly be AFL in 2017.

The complete navigation panel (from Harris) for GPS III SV-03 should arrive in the LMCO Denver facility early next year. Providing the vehicle stays on track through testing, it should be AFL in 2018.

The government has yet to complete the contract award process for GPS III vehicles SV-09 and SV-10 to LMCO, but I am assured the award is imminent.

My sources confirm that Harris is continuing to pump money, expertise and technology into the GPS III payload development process, a manufacturing tour de force, and the company should be back on schedule early next year.

As for OCX, the future GPS Ground Control Segment, that is another tale for another time. For all other GPS III segments, all in all it is a positive message for development and deployment. Which is an admirable feat — after all, it is rocket science!

By the way, the Galileo wager is open to interpretation. There were certainly more than 10 Galileo platforms on orbit on the last day of December 2015, but only nine of them were operational at the time. Both sides are claiming victory. What a surprise!

A product to save your hearing

The EB15LE with Hearing Defenders with accessories. (Photo: ERI)

The EB15LE with Hearing Defenders with accessories. (Photo: ERI)

Before I close, I want to mention a product I have tested as extensively as I can in a limited environment. I agreed to test this non-GPS product because of all the emails and letters I receive concerning tinnitus and how it negatively affects our warfighters. Several emails make clear the necessity and criticality of a good sight picture or display for GPS guidance, especially where exfiltration is concerned.

When warfighters or law enforcement officers are suffering the ill effects of extremely loud noises, it is often disorienting. Much like the effects of a flash-bang device, a victim can lose his bearings and needs to have a clear visual of how to exit the threat environment.

The best solution would be not to suffer the devastating effects of the loud noises in the first place. This is where a company named Etymotic Research Incorporated (ERI) comes into play. ERI has developed electronic hearing protection for law enforcement officers and military users.

The version I tested was designated the EB15 for law enforcement. It functioned well as electronic hearing protection and amplification where needed. The device is essentially an electronic hearing aid that amplifies natural or quiet sounds up to five times, and a hearing defender that electronically blocks loud, harmful sounds by up to 25 decibels.

While I was not able to test the hearing defenders in actual combat, the testing I did perform demonstrated that the EB15-LE is an impressive product with a plethora of earplugs for various noisy environments that may help save a user’s hearing. Our warfighters and law-enforcement officers deserve the best technology available, especially if it helps them retain their orientation in a dangerous environment and saves their hearing.

Until next time, happy navigating, and remember: GPS is brought to you free of charge courtesy of the USAF.

About the Author: Don Jewell

Don Jewell served 30 years in the United States Air Force, as an aviator and a space subject-matter expert. Don’s involvement with GPS and other critical space systems began with their inception, either as a test system evaluator or user. He served two command assignments at Schriever AFB, the home of GPS, and retired as Deputy Chief Scientist for Air Force Space Command. Don also served as a Politico Military Affairs Officer during the Reagan administration, working with 32 foreign embassies and serving as a Foreign Disclosure Officer making critical export control decisions concerning sophisticated military hardware and software. After retiring from the USAF, Don served seven years as the senior space marketer and subject-matter expert for two of the largest government contractors dealing in space software and hardware. Don currently serves on two independent GPS review teams he helped found, and on three independent assessment teams at the Institute for Defense Analyses, dealing with critical issues for the U.S. government. Don has served on numerous Air Force and Defense Scientific Advisory Boards. He writes and speaks extensively on technical issues concerning the U.S. government. Don earned his Bachelor’s degree and MBA; the Ph.D. is in progress.

5 Comments on "Considering GPS III in light of a PNT wager"

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  1. William K. says:

    The mentioning of the hearing protection system is really interesting to me. I am one of those suffering from the damage that happened many years back.
    BUT I am trying to imagine a set of ear-plugs that could stay in place during “tactical activities”, which are often very intense. So if anything that works in that sort of situation can be created and produced it will be a very huge accomplishment, well celebrated by the users, I assure you. (this paragraph is a collection of understatement)
    Thanks for mentioning a topic that, while not GPS related is certainly worth discussion.

    • Don Jewell says:

      William – thanks for your comments and I initially had the same concerns – however the ERI devices fit very snugly once fitted correctly – that is a key and they come with a clear plastic cord that connects them purely for security. Once fitted correctly I never had one fall out – but again I was not in combat. I have suffered with Tinnitus for the last 30 years so this is an important topic to me and so many of our war fighters today are suffering as well. Anything that purports to help is worth looking into I think.

  2. Gordon Reichal says:

    Senator McCain seems concerned OCX is at least as tough a bet as GNSS was years ago. What are the bets on IOC OCX Block I by Q4 2020?

  3. Don Jewell says:

    Gordon they are still working on Block Zero so your guess is as good as mine I am afraid. Some PNT pundits are saying no operational system for GPS III full functionality until 2023.