The System: An L5 Surprise

August 1, 2010  - By
Image: GPS World

It has long been accepted that we may reasonably expect any new technical device to have some growing pains. If you examine the history of the space program you will discover evidence of this. In the case of the first GPS IIF vehicle on orbit we do not have a 12,552-mile screwdriver. but we do have dedicated software and systems engineers at Boeing and in the U.S. Air Force that will solve the issues that crop up and eventually present the world with a stable PNT platform.

I bring this to your attention because researchers at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) say they have found a small variance in the L5 signal on IIF-1. The signal variation results in no more than a 5-centimeter error with a predictable periodicity of about six hours. While observing the IIF, DLR also reports that the signal appears to be “hot” or stronger than anticipated or advertised by about 1/2 db.

Initial reaction from the GPS Wing and Air Force experts at Schriever AFB is that the signal fluctuation appears to be temperature-related, as the periodicity correlates directly to the temperature extremes the satellite is experiencing at this time of year in its MEO orbit. It is being investigated as a matter of course during the standard checkout of the satellite, which will continue for about another four weeks according to the original checkout schedule.

The GPS Wing is confident that all the IIF signal specifications will be met by the time the satellite is set healthy in about a month’s time and they will be able to move forward with the IIF launch schedule as planned. Obviously this could be perturbated by having to make corrections or adjustments to the satellites still to be launched, but this is normal procedure, and some leeway to correct anomalies is built into the schedule for the first few launches of any new satellite system.

Privately, one official commented, “It turns out that no one has ever made this measurement before. The Galileo SVs can only broadcast from 2 transmitters at a time so they are combining two E5 signals generated from the same transmitter.  Furthermore, their data was collected during max Beta meaning when they weren’t in eclipse (less thermal variance).”

The press release from the GPS Wing reads as follows.

SMC Update. July 19 — “Officials from the Air Force Space Command, Space and Missile Systems Center’s Global Positioning Systems Wing announced the “on-orbit checkout” of the first IIF satellite is progressing as scheduled. “Nearing the half way point of its 90-day checkout period, GPS IIF SV-1 also known as SVN 62/PRN 25, is currently broadcasting the same L1 and L2 signals as previous GPS satellites and the new safety of life signal known as L5. All three signals being broadcast from SVN 62 are set unhealthy while experts monitor the quality and characteristics of the signals and the performance of the satellite.

“During the initial phase of testing, [DLR] combined L1, L2, and L5 signals in a technique used to characterize a number of known and modeled error sources from the signals. This three-frequency combining technique helps isolate “other” sources of location error, such as multi-path (when more than one path exists for signals to travel before reception), receiver errors, satellite induced errors and unmodeled phenomena. The L1, L2 and L5 signals from SVN-62 are operating nominally but DLR noticed higher residual errors than expected compared to previous somewhat similar measurements from Galileo’s GIOVE-A R&D satellite.

“The GPS Wing at Los Angeles Air Force Base has corroborated DLR’s results and is investigating root cause to share a deeper understanding of this new signal’s behavior with the user community. The causes of the phase variation are still being investigated, but they are likely the result of sensitivities to changes in the satellite’s thermal environment. SVN 62/PRN 25 is currently experiencing periods of both sunlight and total darkness (known as eclipse season) as the satellite orbits the Earth and traverses through Earth’s shadow. Tests to characterize the satellite’s performance during continuous sunlight exposure will continue after the current eclipse season ends later this month.

“Typical GPS receivers using stand-alone (single signal – L1, L2 or L5) or combinations of L1, L2 and L5 signals as part of their navigation solution will not be affected by this small phenomenon. The Air Force is committed to maintaining excellence in GPS navigation and timing services and to working with the user community to best use and exploit the new modernized GPS signals.

“When tests of this new generation of GPS satellites have been completed and Air Force leadership gives approval, the satellite signals will be set healthy and will operate as specified in the Interface Control Documents (ICDs).”

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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.