Talking to the Satellites

June 6, 2023  - By

Exclusive interview with Lt. Col. Robert O. Wray, Commander 2nd Space Operations Squadron, Schriever Space Force Base, Colorado. Read more from this cover story here

Matteo Luccio, GPS World’s editor-in-chief, had the opportunity to interview Lt. Col. Robert O. Wray, Commander, 2nd Space Operations Squadron, at Schriever Space Force Base, Colorado. (Credit: U.S. Space Force photo by Dennis Rogers)

Matteo Luccio, GPS World’s editor-in-chief, had the opportunity to interview Lt. Col. Robert O. Wray, Commander, 2nd Space Operations Squadron, at Schriever Space Force Base, Colorado. (U.S. Space Force photo by Dennis Rogers)

The entire Global Positioning System constellation comprised of 38 satellites — with its billions of users and myriad military, commercial, consumer and scientific applications — is controlled from one room in a gray office building on a small military base about nine miles east of Colorado Springs, Colorado. The base is Schriever Space Force Base (SFB) and the room is the “operations floor” of the GPS Master Control Station (MCS). It is staffed by members of the 2nd Space Operations Squadron (2 SOPS), an active-duty unit of the U.S. Space Force, supplemented by members of the 19th Space Operations Squadron (19 SOPS), a unit of the U.S. Air Force Reserve. The two squadrons are known collectively as “Team Blackjack.”

Lt. Col. Robert O. Wray is the commander of 2 SOPS and of those 19 SOPS members assigned to the MCS. On March 16, at Schriever SFB, Wray spoke with me at length about the training and duties of his team members, the challenges they face, and what brought him to his current assignment. He then gave me a tour of the MCS and introduced me to each of the 10 people on duty. At any given time, eight of these operators are military personnel and two are civilian contractors. They receive feeds from a worldwide network of monitor stations and ground antennas, including telemetry from the satellites, that enable them to precisely monitor the satellites’ orbits and the state of their systems. The operators upload data and commands to the satellites around the clock to keep the constellation fine-tuned and respond to changing circumstances.

Two of the eight uniformed personnel in the room constitute the GPS Warfighter Collaboration Cell (GWCC), a customer interface that responds to calls from U.S. and allied military forces, as well as private companies and others who need support with GPS operations. One call might be from a military unit needing a boost in the power of the GPS signal in their area during a strike, another might be from a shipping company investigating signal interference near a port, and yet another from a federal civilian agency testing equipment. GWCC is also in daily contact with the U.S. Coast Guard’s Navigation Center and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Below, you can read a transcript of my interview with Wray, edited for clarity.

How do you recruit and select your operators? What is their typical background?

We have both commissioned officers and enlisted operators and they come from different sources, different backgrounds, different degrees of education. Most of our enlisted operators are first assignment personnel, meaning that they enlist, normally when they turn 18; they go through a Space Force-specific version of basic military training down at Lackland Air Force Base — so, there’s an overarching Air Force training, and then there’s some specific Space Force training —then, they go to an undergraduate space training at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California; then, they will come here and receive specific technical training on how to do their duties at the Second Space Operations Squadron, operating our equipment.

The 2nd Space Operations Squadron (2 SOPS) operates the GPS constellation around the clock, supplemented by members of the 19th Space Operations Squadron (19 SOPS). (Credit: U.S. Space Force photo by Dennis Rogers)

The 2nd Space Operations Squadron (2 SOPS) operates the GPS constellation around the clock, supplemented by members of the 19th Space Operations Squadron (19 SOPS). (U.S. Space Force photo by Dennis Rogers)

Our officers must go to college first, then they volunteer for specific career fields. Since the Space Force has been stood up, they can join it directly. They will say whether they would like to be a space operator or work on a different career field, such as cyberspace operations. In fact, for about 85% to 90% of my squadron’s personnel this is their first assignment. We can do that through all the training that we provide. We have one of the longer mission qualification training courses within the Space Force.

Roughly how long is the training for the enlisted personnel and for the officers?

For the enlisted personnel, there’s that undergraduate space training of about four months at Vandenberg. Then they come here and it’s 135 days for the enlisted training program. For the officers, we have a couple of different positions, so the training duration varies. On average, it’s about four months, ranging between three and six months; it just depends on their duties. My engineers have a six-month training course because they have more technical requirements. Some of my other officer positions might go through a three-month training course. Then, as they progress through their career here, they may go to back to an additional month-long training course, as their duties evolve, after they master their initial duties.

It’s interesting: for most of my engineers and operators, this is their first assignment and they get to choose the category of mission — such as operations versus cyber versus engineering — to establish their career field. However, they’re not given a list of units. So, most of these folks are just selected by the talent management office. They distribute talent based on people’s testing scores, backgrounds or, on the officer side, degrees, to make sure that we have a fair mix of personnel. I have a handful of personnel who were able to request 2 SOPS and those are mostly my senior management folks. They’ve completed a couple of assignments and are now coming back in a leadership position. For example, I requested this job. Then, I went before a board and it said, “Okay, based on your experience, your knowledge, and your interest, we’re going to assign you to the Second Space Operations Squadron.”

The 18 year-olds’ background is being teenagers, of course, but what is typically the officers’ background?

Most of our officers come in with STEM degrees. There are some exceptions. A STEM degree is not a prerequisite, because we will train you to the standard necessary to operate the GPS constellation, but most of them have degrees in that area. My engineers are required to have a bachelor’s degree in engineering — electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, aeronautical engineering — but for most other folks who come in, the Space Force leans very heavily toward STEM.

What key skills must your operators have?

Operating in space is complicated because we must consider orbital mechanics. So, you must be able to understand physics. In this job, just to understand how satellites work, you need to be able to absorb information quickly, because it’s always evolving as we get new capabilities. Our training days are long. To stay in this job, you must be able to retain a large volume of information and continue to progress the next day.
Not everyone does that. We do have people who just do not meet our training standards. So, we assign them to different types of jobs, not in the Second Space Operations Squadron. Not everyone graduates our training program. Once they graduate, however, we have very good retention rates. A typical assignment for operators is four years here, both for officers and for enlisted personnel. For our engineers and our other support personnel, it is a three-year assignment. So, those are locked down timelines, which build deep expertise and allow them to prepare future inbounds to take their place one day.

What do they spend most of the time doing?

Members of 2 SOPS, one member of 19 SOPS, and a visitor on the operations floor of the GPS Master Control Station. (Credit: U.S. Space Force photo by Tiana Williams)

Members of 2 SOPS, one member of 19 SOPS, and a visitor on the operations floor of the GPS Master Control Station. (U.S. Space Force photo by Tiana Williams)

We have a 10-member crew. There’s a crew commander, who is always an officer. Besides the technical acumen, these officers must be able to manage people and handle multiple anomalies going on at the same time, multiple different directives that we have coming in from different authorities, both civil requirements and military requirements. They need to know how to balance all of that and take care of the people and make sure that the missions are done in the correct priority order. So, there is a leadership element, besides knowing how to operate all the controls in the computer systems.

The crew commander manages the overall schedule. We have 38 satellites that we need to contact at least once a day, some of them more often than that. We have maintenance procedures. We have our ground infrastructure. So, deconflicting all those pieces and making sure there’s time to do all the different requirements is part of the commander’s overall job.

There is an enlisted crew chief as the senior enlisted position on the crew. That person’s job is to help with all the different reports we must submit, and then augment the crew commander. You have the satellite hardware that’s floating through space, and you want to make sure that the batteries and all the different components are operating correctly.

We have payload system operators, who assemble, correct and adjust the signal that we all receive and love that says what time it is and where you are on Earth. So, they are monitoring all the different monitoring systems we have around the world to say, “Yes, these signals are accurate.” And if there’s a slight deviation, then they identify it and say, “We need to contact the satellite and update the information on that.”

Earth is not a perfect sphere. So, as satellites go around, they drift due to the different pull from gravity. We have three vehicle system operators. These are junior enlisted positions; they are controlling the satellite hardware — mitigating effects from solar weather, ensuring that the satellite constellation is where it needs to be, performing all the different on-orbit type maintenance activities — and then they will receive direction from our engineers when we must maneuver the satellites.

We have two contracted positions. We have a network administration operator who is responsible for our ground infrastructure. Within the U.S. Space Force, there are two sets of ground infrastructure to control the satellites. We have our dedicated ground facilities to control the Global Positioning System and monitor it. We’re fortunate in that regard. So, we make sure those are operating properly and we have the correct communications. The other infrastructure is the U.S. Space Force’s Satellite Control Network, which we can share with other satellite constellations as a secondary system.

How often do you have to fire the boosters to adjust the position or trajectory of the GPS satellites?

Some satellites and some orbits are more problematic than others, due to the pull of gravity and other variables. We may have to fire the boosters on a satellite once every 12 months or only about 18 months. We plan those. Every now and then, a satellite might fail, or the atomic clocks might be shutting down and I have to move another satellite to replace its position in orbit. Those happen occasionally, maybe once every two years. And that can be a longer-term burn where the thrusters will burn longer and the satellite will drift for weeks at a time. All our satellites are loaded with plenty of fuel, so fuel has never been a limiting factor in the life of any of our satellites.

We’re fortunate that, as a whole, they have fairly stable orbits and that most of the corrections we can make from a very slight drift, we can correct with the signal that we transmit, as opposed to having to do many tiny maneuvers. When we do those tiny maneuvers, we then have to make that satellite not visible to users, because we are not able to correct in real time for its movements while it’s maneuvering so your calculation for you would be off, even during the second or two while it is maneuvering. That’s why we will correct with our signal to compensate for a very slight drift. Then when the drift gets closer to a meter, we will then maneuver it back into its optimal spot in its orbit.

What satellite telemetry do the operators monitor?

Besides the satellite’s location and orientation, we monitor such things as pressure on the solar panels, temperature and impact from radiation — not only from the Van Allen belts, but from any kind of solar activity.

What else do they monitor? For example, the health of the various systems, the battery charge, etc.

We have three formal missions: precision navigation, precision timing, and nuclear detection support. Each of the satellites has a nuclear detection payload. So, there’s plenty of different information they monitor relative to that, including our ability to cross-link that nuclear detection information between satellites. Are those systems operating optimally? We make sure that we downlink the information to the Air Force Technical Analysis Center, which receives all that and will receive a real-time nuclear detonation detection notification. While we control that system, we don’t receive that data. So, if there’s a nuclear detonation somewhere, that won’t show up on my screens. We make sure that the whole system is in place, and then the appropriate people who know how to interpret that data — they’re located at Buckley Space Force Base in Colorado — are the ones who receive that data day-to-day. So, our operators are monitoring to make sure that that part of our mission is working properly as well.

Why were those nuclear explosion detectors put on the GPS satellites originally?

Fifty years ago, when GPS was first commissioned as a program, it was very hard to get it through Congress. And so what actually sold this to Congress, was the enduring requirement that we would have this nuclear detection capability. The idea of having global coverage for a nuclear detonation event — this is before the advent of overhead persistent infrared radar — was how GPS got off the ground. Now, who could live without GPS?

We maintain that capability because it’s useful to the United States. The nuclear detection system supplements other capabilities and works on almost all the 38 satellites. And it’s something we can advertise to the public. “Hey, adversaries, if you’re going to do any surface nuclear testing, we’ll be able to detect it and know instantly, because everything’s in view of GPS.” In terms of the power requirements on a GPS satellite, it’s not a big percentage. It’s a very small payload. Eliminating it would not save much in terms of costs. It is a lot of value added for the small cost it incurs.

Besides occasionally adjusting the satellites’ trajectories, what other tweaks do your operators have to make?

While at the Master Control Station, Luccio was given the opportunity to send a command to a GPS satellite. (Credit: U.S. Space Force photo by Tiana Williams)

While at the Master Control Station, Luccio was given the opportunity to send a command to a GPS satellite. (U.S. Space Force photo by Tiana Williams)

We update the timing frequently, to make it as precise as we can. We’re monitoring the satellites. One of the misconceptions with GPS is that we are actively talking to each of the satellites at the same time. We monitor all the satellites in real time, we know what they’re sending down to Earth and can say, “Alright, this is where the satellites say they are versus where we think they actually are.” We monitor that part. But in terms of communicating with the satellites, for their state of health, or to update timing, we don’t have that real-time link. We have our dedicated ground infrastructure, and then the U.S. Space Force has its own shared infrastructure — the Satellite Control Network I mentioned earlier — which has seven antennas around the globe. However, I have more satellites than that, so I can’t be in contact with every one of them at the same time.

Sometimes our updates build between different contacts. That’s why our timing, between updates, might drift a billionth of a second. We’ll make sure that we push that there. As for the location, the satellite thinks it’s in one place over Earth, but between our different monitoring assets, we know that it’s actually a quarter of a meter further along in its orbital plane. We will then tell the satellite, “Okay, you’re actually here now.” We do several calibrations to double check the status of the systems. Can the battery fully charge and recharge? Are we able to reset all these parameters?

We’re monitoring the security of the system, verifying that no one has either tried to or been able to access a GPS satellite. That has never happened in our history, but we still monitor for it. The day we don’t is the day that someone tries, right?

We’re also sending updates about our ground infrastructure. So, if our ground infrastructure is going to be using new encryption or a new type of commands, we need to update the memory banks on the satellites so that they understand how the commands will look as they evolve over time. I can’t upgrade the satellite’s hardware once it is on orbit, only its software, but I can upgrade what I have here on the ground and make sure that we’re also passing those kinds of updates to the satellites, sometimes several times a day, so that we can be responsive as technology evolves here on Earth.

What is involved in a handover of satellite control authority for a new satellite from Space Systems Command to Space Operations Command? Most recently, you received SV06.

Yes, SV 06, which we also call satellite vehicle 79 because it is the 79th that we have launched in orbit. Some of our satellites are more than 25 years old, so we track them by number. Space Systems Command will have a certification list that specifies the performance standards and whether there are any deviations from them — for example, this light doesn’t indicate on your screen or a satellite is unable to do something. That’s happened in the history of launches. Most satellites have two to three atomic clocks. Occasionally, one of those three will not operate when it gets on orbit. We’re going to check it out and I’ll say, “Okay, he’s your satellite, it has only two clocks.” That can still buy us 20 plus years of time.

They’ll identify anything that didn’t meet standards during the building, acquisition, fielding or launching of the satellite. SV06 had zero deficiencies. We were very, very pleased with that. It’s a testament to the engineering and the time and the checkout that it took to launch it. So, this handover was very simple. They gave us a report that said, “Here’s everything that we were asked to build, and we delivered it exactly as we were supposed to.” As operators, we will sit alongside them and validate that the satellite is sending the information, that our system can ingest it, that we can send commands to the satellite and that it will respond as expected.

At that point, Space Systems Command turns to Space Operations Command, which is commanded by Lieutenant General Whiting. Space Operations Command is the operational acceptance authority and supports U.S. Space Command as the combatant command. Space Systems Command will provide that report. Then a general officer will say, “Yes, I accept this satellite,” either as is or with the risks. Or, they could say, “No, I want you to go fix this, Space Systems Command. It’s not ready yet for us to start using and present as a capability to the United States Space Command.” Say that they couldn’t get the clocks to turn on at all. Space Operations Command will not want to receive that satellite because it’s not valuable to Space Command. We can’t compute a navigation signal without atomic clocks.

Then we would say, “Alright, Space Systems Command, figure out why the clocks aren’t working and get them to turn on.” This is just an example, but it has never happened. Once Space Operations Command has satellite control authority, they give the satellite to me and my squadron and say, “Okay, 2 SOPS, this is yours. In accordance with your directives, provide the GPS signal. You are free to conduct your final checkouts.” Our final checkouts took about three weeks. That was mostly because we had to check out the nuclear detection system and that calibration process takes a little while. We didn’t feel the need to rush it, so we did it in a deliberate manner. After that, we made the signal healthy and visible to all users in the world. Now it’s on par with any of our other satellites in terms of how we maintain it and control it.

Where is the satellite physically at the moment of handover from Space Systems Command to Space Operations Command?

It’s on orbit, it’s already in its designated plane. Space Systems Command is responsible for the launching and placement of the satellite. They own the rocket contracts. They’ll make sure that it gets in the right place. If it is not in the right place, they’re not going to give it to us because it’s part of their mission. We’re there monitoring it from the second it is launched. We coordinate very well with each other, but they have ownership of it and the authority to make additional maneuvers before it’s in place. But the systems aren’t on, the satellite is not visible to public users. It’s just a piece of metal and circuits flying through space at that point. That’s why Space Systems Command still has the control authority for it at that point.

If the satellite is dark, how do you check the signal? And once you turn it on, it’s live for everybody, right?

Luccio receiving the “certificate of command” for having sent a command to a GPS satellite to a GPS satellite. (Credit: U.S. Space Force photo by Tiana Williams)

Luccio receiving the “certificate of command” for having sent a command to a GPS satellite to a GPS satellite. (U.S. Space Force photo by Tiana Williams)

The satellite is powered on, but the signal is not made visible to users. We’re able to send test commands internally that are visible only by us and receive signals that users don’t see. Just like if we’re testing, upgrading or maneuvering a satellite, we don’t power it down, we just make sure that it doesn’t send a signal that users can see and ingest. We send out public notification of that, in case someone was doing testing with a very specific satellite. We’ll do that in advance for any satellite. If it is an unplanned outage, we’ll send the notice as soon as we know that there’s a problem with the satellite. In this case, the new satellite is on and what we’ll do first is verify that the satellite can receive commands and control from us. Before we even care about what signal it is outputting, we’ll just make sure that we can talk to it, and that it responds the right way. So, yeah, day one is not “Let’s see if you can receive the signal on your phone.”

How can a signal, on L3 or L5, be visible to your team but not to any user?

We set it unhealthy, so that GPS receivers will exclude it from their calculation.

Oh, so it’s not that they don’t physically receive the signal, it’s just that they don’t use it.

When we first launch a satellite, we’re not transmitting any signals. Only after we do all that initial checkout will we turn on the signal generator on the satellite. We’ll check the signals, one at a time, to make sure that they’re accurate, but we’ll be the only ones looking for them because we’re doing a checkout. When we launch a satellite, at first the position we broadcast is wildly inaccurate, because it is figuring out where it is on orbit. It takes several uploads and different commands over a couple of days for it to get to the accuracy that we want. So, even if you were looking for it, it would be very hard. You might find a signal that says that it is a million miles away from where it is. You wouldn’t even look for a signal like that. So, it’s a deliberate process.

What does completion of the GPS III modernization program mean for your operation, now that SV10 has been declared available for launch?

GPS III is definitely a better satellite system than its predecessors. It has more modern technology, it is better for anti-jamming. However, for my operation, it does not necessarily mean a lot, day to day. We could continue controlling more satellites. Under my current architecture, I can only set 31 satellites healthy at a time. The extra ones are just spares. So, even if I have all 10 online, I’ll still be limited until we can bring our next generation command and control system online to fully utilize the capabilities of the GPS constellation.

As we start to have a higher percentage of GPS III and III F satellites online, I’ll have a more robust capability. Right now, any navigation and timing solution that you compute will still involve our legacy GPS IIF, IIR, and IIR-M satellites. So, while the IIIs are better — the constellation is newer and more resilient — it will not necessarily change my operation and there will not necessarily be a significant impact for the average user at the onset.

A model of a GPS satellite. (Credit: U.S. Space Force photo by Dennis Rogers)

A model of a GPS satellite. (U.S. Space Force photo by Dennis Rogers)

What’s involved in a shift change between 2 SOPS and 19 SOPS personnel? Or do they operate together?

19 SOPS is our reserve affiliate, whereas 2 SOPS is an active duty unit comprised of Space Force Guardians and Air Force Airmen. The Space Force does not have a reserve component like the other military branches. So, we have an Air Force Reserve unit, 19 SOPS, and they provide people and expertise. They represent a little more than 20% of my manpower. They have people who are mobilized to work either full time or for a set duration, supporting different facets of my mission. They do upgrades and engineering, and then I have 19 SOPS personnel on crew conducting operations. For example, I have six crews, one of my crews has a 19 SOPS crew commander and the rest of the personnel are 2 SOPS. On a different crew, my vehicle system operator or my payload system operator may be a 19 SOPS person. We are all integrated.

We are a great example of a total force unit, which is what we call it when we have the active and the reserve part of the military, in the Space Force. It’s an awesome opportunity, because I’ll have 19 SOPS personnel whose day job might be working for Lockheed Martin — they’ll be working on building satellites or on repairing GPS systems — then they’ll be mobilized for four to six months, come work on crew and bring that expertise that they have from their civilian job into our team here. So, we have a great setup and I’m proud to have 19 SOPS as part of this team. We call ourselves Team Blackjack, because 2 + 19 = 21.

What brought you to your current position?

After I graduated from Columbia University, via the Reserve Officer Training Corps, I was commissioned into the Air Force in 2006. I switched to the Space Force in 2020.

What was your major at Columbia?

Political science and history.

My undergraduate (Stony Brook) and graduate (MIT) degrees are also in political science.

Those were great times. When I joined the U.S. Air Force, I was told I would be a space officer. So, that’s how I got into space. I’ve always had a personal fascination with space. Growing up, my favorite show was “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” The Delta logo of the U.S. Space Force was modeled in part off the Star Trek logo. So, I’m proud that I get to wear a Star Trek logo on my uniform every day, paying a little respect to the heritage that helped popularize space in this country.

In my previous posting, I was at the Department of State. I worked in the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance in the Office of Emerging Security Challenges. I had a broad portfolio, including dealing with space policy and space security issues, as well as other emerging security requirements, such as treaty disagreements.

What attracted you to GPS in particular?

Lt. Col. Wray graduated from Columbia University with a degree in political science and history. (Credit: U.S. Space Force photo by Dennis Rogers)

Lt. Col. Wray graduated from Columbia University with a degree in political science and history.
(U.S. Space Force photo by Dennis Rogers)

The United States has made GPS available for free to users around the world. Our government also does things like teach people how to enhance their farming, how to increase food for their country. The U.S. Space Force can provide GPS products to help countries that are trying to stop human trafficking or are trying to do drug interdiction operations in the mountainous terrain of places like South America. Understanding how GPS is an instrument of American soft power really inspired me to think that this was something I would like to do once I returned from Washington, D.C. I switched to the U.S. Space Force while I was at the Department of State

That’s really where GPS sunk in for me. I’m an electronic warfare specialist. My background is counterspace, which is the ability to negate the space activities of an adversary. GPS is a little atypical from that. But I requested to the board that selected me for this position to be able to have that opportunity. I learned through my experience at the State Department how GPS impacts so many countries and so many facets of how the United States does business. I just thought, wow, this is the face of space! So, why not be here. I was pleased I was selected for this opportunity.

I’ve been watching Star Trek from the very beginning, in 1967, all the way to “Star Trek: Picard” now.

It never gets old, trust me.

What do you think when you see an emergency vehicle go by or when you see someone looking at their location on their phone, knowing that you are one of the key people responsible for ensuring that GPS is healthy 24/7/365?

Obviously, I’m proud of the mission and proud of my Airmen and Guardians who make it happen day to day. I am also a crew commander, so I’m on shift one day a month, pushing the buttons and making sure that everything is where it needs to be. It’s really my team that provides the 24/7/365 presence. When I see an ambulance driving by specifically, I think about the Trident Juncture NATO exercise in 2018. Russia responded to it by placing very powerful GPS jammers on the border with Norway and Finland, broadcasting a very powerful signal, and jamming GPS in Norway for more than a year and a half. That jamming had tangible impacts. The most notable was on ambulances, which couldn’t reach very ill people and prevented them from receiving life-saving medical care. In Norway, civil air traffic could only fly when the weather was good, because they had to fly visually only because they couldn’t rely on their GPS receivers. It had multiple ripple impacts, not for the Norwegian military, but only for civil users.

So, when I see an ambulance drive by, I think of the places around the world where ambulances are impacted because people interfere with GPS and the dependencies on it. Military users, such as F-35 pilots, train to operate without GPS but not ambulance drivers, civil pilots, and all the different people who are impacted by it. So that’s what I think about when I see an ambulance drive by. I’m proud to try to make GPS as available as possible to as many users around the world. It’s not just our ambulances, it’s all the other ambulances, all the different people everywhere around the world.

One of the things I’ve come to appreciate even more so in this job is our support of critical infrastructure in this country. How many facets of American life are enabled by GPS? To me, that’s why I think it’s not just the economic impact — that’s a much-touted stat, OK, yes, GPS enables so much of our GDP, but it also enables the timing for our electrical grid.

The Internet, financial institutions, broadcasting…

The Swift banking system. In the United States, $1.5 quadrillion in economic activity processed annually are associated with GPS timing. There are so many ways in which GPS enables our way of life. I’ve already talked about agriculture. From points of sale, buying gas at a gas station, to your retirement accounts and the trades that are made with that, to commercial shipping, and I could go on. It’s not just about helping you get to a location.

I think our timing mission is the most powerful because of how much it touches. So, when I see a dam letting out water, I know that’s controlled through GPS and that they will be able to close that dam, because they’re able to send signals all linked to GPS timing, so they don’t flood a town downstream. I look at that as a powerful example of GPS, not just the ambulance going to find someone who’s in distress.

What special challenges do you face during a war such as the current one in Ukraine?

Our Global Warfighter Collaboration Cell is also part of our crew. They received taskings from the combatant command involved in that war, whether for the United States or any of our allies and partners. We also receive requests directly from our allies and partners every day, especially from the Brits and the Aussies. They’re always asking for coordination for either military operation or testing. That’s great, that’s what we’re here for.

If the war extends to space and someone might be targeting one of our assets, well, that’s a concern. GPS satellites don’t have any defensive mechanisms. We advertise their positions. We believe that, because the primary beneficiaries are civil users around the world, it has its own special place up there. We focus on that part of the mission rather than enabling GPS to be a defensive asset.

(Credit: U.S. Space Force photo by Dennis Rogers)

(U.S. Space Force photo by Dennis Rogers)

So, most of what we have to do with the war is the effects provided by GPS to different users. They will send in requests — through their government, a civil agency, or a combatant command in whatever theater. They’ll say, “Hey, I would like to enhance GPS. I would like information about jamming in my area. I would like predictive products.” One of the most powerful things we can do is to model GPS well into the future. So, if I want to have a precision munitions strike, if I want to conduct a hostage rescue during a conflict, all these different types of things, we can tell them when GPS will be most accurate, maybe when the constellation is not optimized. “Oh, you’re in a deep canyon or ravine? OK, let’s model your situation because maybe you can’t see as many satellites.” We can help planners for a wartime environment.

I can’t stop someone from jamming GPS locally. I operate in space, I don’t operate in that theater where the jammer is, but we can provide information to the combatant commands who can act on that should they choose to. We can provide support, whether it’s with increasing power, or by providing support for munitions strikes. If there’s a search and rescue in a conflict zone or natural disaster, we can provide enhanced GPS support and predictive products for rescuers who might be dealing with the aftermath of a conflict or a natural disaster. We are a supporting entity for those involved in any kind of conflict.

Depending on where you are, we normally accept either unclassified or secret level requests. We have a variety of different users who ask for it. We can enhance the strength of the signal that we put out. It’s a finite enhancement, but maybe we can mitigate the effect of a jammer. Maybe the jammer’s radius isn’t as wide. A jammer on the ground, which can plug into an outlet in a building or a diesel generator, has more power than I can ever pack on a satellite on orbit, which lives off batteries and solar panels. We’re not designed to defeat jammers.

You’re transmitting with 30 W, less than most lightbulbs use, from 20,000 km!

You’re right. Our power output is much lower than that of a jammer, but that’s okay. We can also provide predictive routes and say, “Okay, for your planning purposes, where are there jammers? If you go this close, our signals will be degraded.” We have the L2 signal, which is a military encrypted signal that provides added resilience. However, to connect to that military signal, you need to first connect to the civil signal, the course/acquisition signal on L1. If I turn on a jammer right in this room, even if you had an L2-capable military grade receiver, if you weren’t already connected to GPS, it wouldn’t do you any good. We can provide that information to warfighters and say, “Alright, you can connect to our signal from here, where there are no jammers, then connect to L2 for the military encryption, before you try to conduct your military activities.” We provide that information to planners all around the world. We can provide it in real time, we can provide predictive analysis for hours, days, even weeks out.

If there were any kind of threats to GPS itself, they would be reported to U.S. Space Command and it would be up to them, if there were an actual threat to our satellites, or to our command and control architecture itself. The signal in space less so. That has to do with the other combatant commands. They will decide if they want to address a given threat, like if I set up a jammer somewhere.

My job is to provide the signal, support the users — so I could support testing, warfighting actions, health and status upgrades — make sure that it’s available. At the end of the day, it is the users — whether it’s Apple building a new phone, or U.S. Indo-Pacific Command wanting to conduct an exercise in the Pacific with a bunch of allies — that tell us exactly what they need and when they need it, and we’ll support them the best we can.

Some of the reports, you’ll receive through NavCen, the FAA, or some other civilian agency, right?

Our two most significant partnerships are with the Department of Transportation, with the FAA, and the Department of Homeland Security, where we work mostly through the Coast Guard Navigation Center (NavCen). Within Homeland Security I also work with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), dealing with critical infrastructure. The Department of Transportation also has much broader equities than just what the FAA covers, but we’re in touch with those two agencies all throughout the day for several types of things. So, if there’s an air traffic-related type event, we will typically hear about it through the FAA. “We have an anomaly. This plane is reporting GPS issues.” We can assess and say, “Maybe there’s some space weather going on that is interfering with the receiver, especially at altitude,” or “We are we experiencing an issue with one of our satellites.” Normally, we can catch it pretty quickly, but potentially that can be the issue.

The NavCen has to do with any kind of maritime or terrestrial issue. So, all around the world, anyone who reports jamming, spoofing, or other GPS issues funnels them to NavCen, and then they’ll work with us. Maybe they’ll collect multiple reports if applicable, send them to us, and then we can assess whether the signal in space is good. Maybe there’s some localized testing. Maybe a friendly governments is doing some testing and a commercial ship has to be passing right by the testing area. We’ll provide that feedback to the user. Also, if there is a specific threat, we will also share that with other users who might be able to address it in that particular theater. So, if someone’s intentionally interfering with GPS, obviously, I can’t stop them. The Coast Guard can’t stop them. But we can provide that to the people who may be able to.

How will the transition to the Next Generation Operational Control System (OCX) impact your operations?

We’re excited to have OCX come online.

When will you complete the transition?

The timeline has been revised. I am not tracking a Full Operational Acceptance date — meaning the date OCX is transferred from Space Systems Command to Space Operations Command and given to me to use. Challenges with the program timeline are well documented. We are supporting testing. There have been upgrades, our ground infrastructure has been upgraded — there’s plenty of new equipment in my buildings and we are actively supporting testing.

I have a team of 2 and 19 SOPS personnel who are actively providing the operator engagement. “Hey, here are the things we need to do. Can we make sure that this works properly on this new baseline?” We’re very excited for OCX to come online, because it’ll enable us to fully use the L1C, L2C and the high-powered L5 signal, as well as M Code

We’re very much supportive. The sooner we can get OCX online, the better capability we can provide to both military and civil users. So, we’re excited for that. But, day-to-day, I have about 20 people who were supporting full time OCX development, testing, planning, all those type of things. As we get closer to fielding the system, there will be eventually dedicated tests with OCX on space-based assets. When that happens, I will need my operational crew personnel to be there, to conduct those tests, because we have the satellite control authority. Right now, all the testing has been limited to ground-based systems and testing with a closed loop system, not actually commanding any satellites.

Lt. Col. Wray gave Luccio a 2 SOPS patch, like the one on the wall behind them. (Credit: U.S. Space Force photo by Tiana Williams)

Lt. Col. Wray gave Luccio a 2 SOPS patch, like the one on the wall behind them.
(U.S. Space Force photo by Tiana Williams)

So, we’re able to work with the 20 people we have and all the wonderful personnel at Space Systems Command, and then their contractor Raytheon. I don’t have an exact date for the next step of testing yet. It’ll be after DD250, which is an acquisition milestone. It will involve our operators sending commands to satellites; validating, not just with the military, both the departments of Transportation and of Homeland Security, that the signal outputs are in accordance with all the specifications necessary for civil users as well. That will involve my operators and will be more time intensive than the current workload.

Will you transition to the new system gradually or all at once?

Users shouldn’t detect anything because, again, they’re only getting signals from the satellites. OCX is about how we talk to the satellites. I will not be able to simultaneously command from my current command and control architecture and the new one. I will transition the satellites one at a time. Each satellite can only be commanded by one or the other. In terms of how we compute a solution, our current command and control architecture uses a Kalman filter to do that math for us. The new one that will be delivered, will be ever so slightly different and we don’t want to have that mismatch.

So, when we’re ready, we will do deliberate testing where I can test one, two, three, four satellites on the new OCX, we will validate that it works, continue doing everything like normal — again, it should be transparent to the users. Then, once we have completed that testing and we’ve analyzed the data and worked with our civil counterparts to make sure that all stakeholders across the U.S. government are happy and that this meets all the requirements we need and will have no impact on any existing GPS users anywhere in the world, then we will make that decision to actually move all the satellites over, one at a time. It’ll take me a few days to transition to the new system, then we’re going to start operating on it.

Will users see any improvement?

The very first day that we transition, no. It’ll be the exact same. Once we are fully over on there and we have completed our final checkouts and Space Operations Command has operationally accepted the system, yes, users will see an improvement. We will be able to transmit the L5 signal with significantly more power. There’ll be more robust signals for anyone who needs that Safety of Life signal or who has a device that utilizes that. They’ll be able to use that capability in more places. If I’m in a deep canyon somewhere I’ll be able to use L5.

Our signal will be more resistant to jamming, which means that the average user, if there’s interference — whether it’s intentional or naturally occurring — will be less impacted by it. Our L1C signal, when that comes online, that will allow interoperability with other satellite constellations. So, I will be able to compute, potentially, a better navigation solution. Maybe the best four will be three GPS satellites and a Galileo satellite. That will benefit all users. If it’s more accurate, we will all appreciate the benefits from that.

2 SOPS patch (Credit: Matteo Luccio)

2 SOPS patch (Photo by Matteo Luccio)

The strength of the L2C signal and the level of encryption will be much closer to the military level. So, if I’m in a city I will be able to better rely on GPS to help me, because I won’t be as worried about the interference from skyscrapers. If I’m hiking in a deep forest, my signal will be able to penetrate better through the trees. I’ll be less likely to ever lose GPS signal. So, there will be many benefits to users. That’s why I’m excited to bring this capability online. Everyone will benefit, right? And, of course, it will still be free for everybody. I think it will be a real winner for our government and for all users when we bring this system online.

Who is your closest counterpart at Galileo in terms of commanding its operation? Do you two talk to each other?

We’ve had a couple of interchanges with Galileo at our level. They have an operations floor and there have been times when we have talked to them directly, but most of the time that goes through the National Coordination Office: Mr. [Harold] Stormy Martin and his team. They normally do that external interface. [Galileo is run by] foreign governments and most of the interaction has to do with policy. We don’t interfere with each other’s signals. If there was a potential impact of, say, a collision, or one resource could affect the other, then yes, we’ll talk tactically to each other. “Okay, my satellite’s here, your satellite’s there, what are your challenges? Are you transmitting a signal you shouldn’t?” Or something along those lines. If there was a known threat in space, we could talk to each other in that regard. But day-to-day, I don’t talk too much to the Galileo operations team. Those interactions are mostly held at a higher level. I have no interactions with the BeiDou and GLONASS operations floors; any such discussions would be held at a higher level.

I was thinking more in terms of exchanging notes, professionally. “How do you handle this or that? We do it this way.”

Those interchanges do happen, but it won’t be my meeting. It won’t be something that I do on a day-to-day basis, like I do with the FAA or the Coast Guard Navigation Center. We talk to them all throughout the day. Those meetings are set up as specific technical interchanges organized by other Cabinet departments. They can invite me. We’ll talk and we’ll say, “Hey, yes, these are some of the things that we’re doing.” and they’ll say, “These are some of the things we’re doing.” “Okay, that’s very interesting.” So, we do have that cross talk, but they’re more structured, coordinated type events versus on the fly. So, unless there’s a crisis, or an interference issue where we need to resolve it quickly, they’re structured and planned.

How do you collaborate with NavCen to help them keep their information up to date and accurate?

We provide it as quickly as we humanly can. If we are planning something, they will be the first to know. If we have an anomaly or must take a satellite offline for some reason, we will send them a notification within a minute or two. That’s normally preceded by a phone call because that’s even faster. They have a 24-hour watch center. Then they’ll update that information and send it to users as need be. Our legal mandate is to be as transparent as possible. NavCen is a wonderful partner to help us with that, so we let them know as quickly as we can.

Our GPS Warfighter Collaboration Cell is that dedicated interface, so there’s always someone who’s ready. Even if the crew is troubleshooting a big problem, whatever it might be, they’re still making those notifications right away. That way, there’s no difference between what we’re tracking and what they’re tracking, and then it’s just the time it takes for a person to update various reporting or notification tools, so that the rest of the world can know as well.

So, you and Captain Scott Calhoun [NavCen’s commander] talk often?

Yes, Captain Calhoun is a great partner. We had an interchange in Stockholm together, for example, where we talked with the Swedish government. I was a presenter there on behalf of the Department of Transportation. We highlighted what GPS has done for civil users. Sweden was one of the first adopters of GPS in the world. They use it for their different civil and military applications. While we were there, Galileo also attended and that was an example a forum where they highlighted some of their best practices, and we shared some of our strengths as well. And so that was a productive forum. Captain Calhoun and I were both invited there; we both participated and highlighted our respective teams’ equities.

Great. Thank you!

About the Author: Matteo Luccio

Matteo Luccio, GPS World’s Editor-in-Chief, possesses more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for GNSS and geospatial technology magazines. He began his career in the industry in 2000, serving as managing editor of GPS World and Galileo’s World, then as editor of Earth Observation Magazine and GIS Monitor. His technical articles have been published in more than 20 professional magazines, including Professional Surveyor Magazine, Apogeo Spatial and xyHt. Luccio holds a master’s degree in political science from MIT. He can be reached at or 541-543-0525.