New players trigger new space race, GPS III update

April 26, 2017  - By
Robin Wrinn

Robin Wrinn

This month, we bring you a guest column on the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Robin Wrinn, a communications professional based in Atlanta, gives her perspective on the premier annual space event, held in early April. Among her findings: new players in space race, new capabilities afforded by 3D printing and virtual reality, and insights into the GPS III program from Lockheed Martin’s VP for navigation systems.

— Alan Cameron, editor


Blue Origin spacecraft.

Blue Origin spacecraft.

A host of new entrepreneurial and government players entering the space sector created an underlying sense of excitement that a new “space race” has begun. Visitors attending the 33rd annual Space Symposium first encountered the imposing, reusable Blue Origin spacecraft displayed prominently in front of the Broadmoor Hotel Exhibit Hall. It seemed to symbolically punctuate a statement that the space industry landscape is changing — and putting long-experienced government players and government contract monopolies on notice.

Hosted by the Colorado Springs-based Space Foundation, this year’s Symposium featured more than 180 exhibitors, including 38 new international partners and space, government and defense officials from more than 30 countries. In addition to the United States, other notable space nations attending included China, Germany, South Korea, Japan, high-level members of Russia’s ROSCOSMOS, and for the first time, the European GNSS Agency (GSA).

Space Recognized as a Security Asset

A primary theme throughout the speaker lineup was development of missions and programs to shore up national cyber and space security. Japan, for example, had previously banned all military use of space assets, but according to Shuzo Takada, director general of Japan’s National Space Policy Secretariat, the country has established new laws in part due to growing threats from countries such as North Korea.

Europe also has joined the club of providers of navigation services and has formally acknowledged the need to defend its member countries against cyber threats. In a keynote session, EU Commissioner for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs, Elżbieta Bieńkowska, the first European Commissioner to address the Space Symposium, noted that Galileo, Europe’s GNSS, went live last December. In 2016, six Galileo satellites were launched building on the six the year before. Today, 17 leading chipset companies, representing more than the 95% of global supply, all produce Galileo-compatible products.

Bieńkowska also outlined a three-point space strategy for Europe that incentivizes innovation, including investment in R& D projects, but also prompts Europe to officially view space as a security asset. “We for the first time recognize that space is a strategic asset and a central element of Europe’s strategic autonomy. Europe must ensure its own security,” she said.

In his conference remarks, U.S. Congressman Jim Bridenstine welcomed addition of Galileo’s capabilities to the global satellite infrastructure, noting that GPS capabilities make it as important to our way of life as the electrical power grid. (Indeed, GPS actually enables key capabilities of the power grid through its precise timing, although Bridenstine did not mention this aspect.)

“There are very strategic risks to our satellite systems and we need to make sure the GPS, GLONASS and Galileo signals provide back0up to one another and are supported in bilateral ways. “

New Private Investment Sparks Change in Costs and Bidding

The growing presence of private investment in the space economy was very notable at this year’s Symposium. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is among several entrepreneurial companies — Elon Musk’s SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies) and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, to name two others — that are challenging the traditional drivers. These new players are upsetting the standard government agency inclination to prefer longstanding relationships over price. Now the bid price gaps are too big to ignore.

Case in point: SpaceX has twice now in two years won bids to launch GPS III satellites, with price as a major factor. According to a March 2017 U.S. Department of Defense press release, SpaceX will provide the Falcon 9 launch vehicle production, mission integration and launch operation for support of the GPS III mission. The contract awards break a nearly 10-year monopoly held by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Boeing Defense, Space & Security.

Previously, Claire Leon, launch enterprise director for the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center had been quoted as saying the service views the entrance of competition as a good step that will help the government over time. “You’ll see a lot of innovation between multiple contractors to invest in the rocket systems for the United States,” she said.

Lockheed Martin Touts Digital Tapestry Savings

Collaborative Human Immersive Laboratory (CHIL).

Collaborative Human Immersive Laboratory (CHIL).

During the Symposium, Lockheed Martin Space Systems invited attending media to tour its expansive Littleton, Colo. campus where it is assembling and testing both the next-generation GPS III satellite constellation and the Orion spacecraft. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor on the GPS III program and is under contract the U.S. Air Force to build eight position, navigation and timing satellites. The contract includes options for up to four more vehicles. In September 2016, the Air Force announced it had exercised the option for Lockheed Martin to build the ninth and tenth satellites, which will include additional hosted payloads to increase accuracy.

Throughout the tour, Lockheed Martin’s hosts emphasized the company’s cost and time efficiency innovations. We first saw the Collaborative Human Immersive Laboratory (CHIL), where Lockheed is using virtual reality (VR) technology to plan the design and manufacture of nearly all its aerospace components. In one of the largest VR laboratories of its kind, engineering teams review 3D models of product designs, tooling and facilities. Instead of paper, virtual prototyping enable Lockheed’s engineers to inspect holographs of the engineered designs, as well as become avatars to examine designs in virtual environments in full scale and in an immersive way. The lab also is used to conduct virtual dry runs of systems once products get to the shop floor.

Collaborative Human Immersive Laboratory (CHIL).

Collaborative Human Immersive Laboratory (CHIL).

According to Darin Bolthouse, manager of the CHIL, Lockheed Martin began virtual prototyping in 2010 with an initial focus on the GPS III and the Orion space capsule programs. Now the company uses the CHIL across the enterprise for all programs. It also is looking for ways to shrink the large lab footprint with newer commercially available VR equipment to create more VR pods at other locations and a site-to-site VR environment network with other facilities, including Sunnyvale, Calif., Kennedy Space Center and Johnson Space Center.

Again, time and cost savings were emphasized with a primary narrative that “inserting virtual modeling and model-based engineering helps from the ground up.” Touted benefits included recouping an initial investment of $5 million per year since its construction in 2010 through cost avoidance in rooting out specific engineering problems in VR that otherwise would have been discovered on the shop floor. A specific example served up was using the CHIL to virtually redesign the top deck of the Orion spacecraft three times to work out human-machine ergonomic issues.

Parts made with a 3D printer.

Parts made with a 3D printer.

In another leg of the tour, Lockheed Martin showcased how it uses 3D printing to make parts for both Orion and military satellites: tubing routings, bottles and attachments. This has reportedly reduced lead time to manufacture a single part from six months to 1.5 months, with assembly time reduced from 12 hours to just three. Another added benefit is accessibility and costs of replacement parts down the road. 3D printing provides the roadmap and means to recreate a part 20 years later even if Lockheed Martin or a sub-contractor should have ceased operation.

GPS III Vehicle Rundown

The highlight of the tour was Lockheed Martin’s top secret clean room, where the next-generation GPS III satellite constellation is being assembled and tested. The expansive space included areas for integrating the parts of each satellite vehicle, as well as environment testing chambers for acoustics and thermal vacuum, which simulate space conditions with extreme temperatures, including the near and far side of Earth solar temperatures. No phones, cameras or recorders were allowed, and even then parts of the satellite vehicles were draped off from visitors’ view.

3-D printer.

3D printer.

Prominent placards gave the GPS III Program Production Status:

Vehicle 01

Completed Factory Functional Qualification Testing

Placed in Storage since February 2017

Vehicle 02

Space vehicle integration forecast completion – May 2017

Environmental testing to begin – May 2017

Available for launch – 2018

Vehicle 03

Navigation Payload forecast delivery – Spring 2017

Space vehicle integration – Fall 2017

Begin environmental testing – Early 2018

Available for launch – 2019

Vehicle 04

Navigation Payload forecast delivery – Fall 2017

Space vehicle integration – Early 018

Satellite Delays Resolved

According to Lockheed Martin spokesperson Chip Eschenfelder, who spoke with GPS World during the media tour, previously reported GPS III engineering delays related to the payload have been resolved.

Lockheed Martin's GPS III clean room in Littleton, Colorado

Lockheed Martin’s GPS III clean room in Littleton, Colorado

Lockheed subcontractor Harris Corporation provides the critical mission data unit (MDU) and other components of the navigation payload, including atomic clock timing systems, radiation-hardened computers and powerful transmitters to deliver accurate, robust navigation signals for the GPS III constellation. Last year it was discovered that a ceramic capacitor had not been subjected to all the program’s required qualification tests. Once the issue was discovered, Harris deployed a dedicated team to complete the required tests by December 2016. The issue caused a delay of four months. The part was among the more than 28,000 used in the navigation payloads for the GPS III vehicles. The company announced in February 2016 that it plans to offer a fully digital navigation payload for the GPS III’s space vehicle 11 and beyond.

According to Harris Corp. spokesperson Ellen Mitchell, the company has so far delivered two full payloads to Lockheed Martin and has delivered some of the hardware for the third space vehicle.

Another potential GPS III delay presented itself in March 2017 when the U.S. Air Force opened a review of the propulsion systems used for Lockheed Martin’s GPS III and other military satellites, following a problem during an attempt to boost one into orbit. According to Eschenfelder, the review is a standard process and was out of an abundance of caution. Lockheed is“confident that this review will not delay the Air Force’s planned spring 2018 Initial Launch Capability (ILC).”

Further comments on the GPS III program came in a subsequent conversation I held with Mark Stewart, Lockheed Martin’s vice president for Navigation Systems:

Q: GPS III has extensive military applications. What differences will it bring to the civil, end-user experience as compared to today’s?

A: Millions of commercial and civilian users rely on GPS every day. GPS III begins a new era of improved Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) performance for these civilian users in that it will be the first GPS satellite transmitting a new L1C civil signal designed to be compatible and interoperable with other international Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), like Galileo and QZSS. In the near future, civilian GPS receivers – like those found in smart phones — will be looking for L1C and compatible signals from satellites from multiple GNSS constellations, including GPS III. With more opportunities for GPS receivers to maintain “line-of-sight” L1C connections, civilian users will have much improved connectivity.

Q: What is the impact of the OCX/ground segment delay? Won’t that impact realizing GPS III’s full capabilities on time?

A: The first GPS III satellite, GPS III Space Vehicle 1 (GPS III SV01), was placed in storage on Feb. 27 and is now awaiting call up for launch from the Air Force. GPS III SV01 will need the Next Generation OCX Block 0 to launch. We are working closely with the Air Force and Raytheon to demonstrate GPS III SV01 operating on orbit as soon as possible. It is more appropriate for the U.S. Air Force and Raytheon to comment about OCX’s capabilities and what it will bring to the overall GPS III enterprise.

OCX Block 1 is the baseline program under development to command and control GPS III satellites.  As a temporary gap-filler until OCX Block 1 is available, the Air Force placed Lockheed Martin under contract for “GPS III Contingency Operations” (COps), which will enable the current GPS Operational Control Segment (OCS) to checkout and operate GPS III satellites prior to the delivery of OCX Block 1.  Lockheed Martin’s COps program successful completed a Critical Design Review in November 2016, on schedule for delivery in 2019.

Q: How do you see the future of GPS in a multi-constellation environment (considering that soon in addition to GPS and the Russian GLONASS, the European Galileo and the Chinese Baidoo will be fully operational)? And what does that mean for the civilian end-user?

A: Civilian multi-constellation users will significantly benefit from the new L1C signal, designed be compatible and interoperable with the Galileo E1 Open Service (OS) signal. In addition, GPS navigation messages include the GPS/GNSS-time offsets to enable a multi-constellation PNT solution.

Q: Galileo will be implementing a Commercial Service already in the first generation. Do you think that such a service could be implemented in the future on GPS?

A: Ultimately the capabilities of future GPS satellites will be determined by the Air Force. That said, Lockheed Martin’s GPS III was specifically designed to be flexible and modular so in the future the satellite could easily incorporate new missions if they are deemed necessary, and new technology as it becomes available.

Q: What were and are the technology challenges Lockheed Martin faced during the GPS-Ill development?

A: GPS III is the most powerful GPS satellite ever designed, with three times greater accuracy and up to eight times improved anti-jamming capability. That increased signal power comes from a revolutionary new navigation payload. Early in development our payload provider, Harris Corporation, had some design challenges. Those issues were eventually overcome and fully validated when GPS III SV01 successfully completed its Thermal Vacuum (TVAC) test in December 2015. We are excited to be bringing GPS III’s new capabilities to our warfighters soon.

Q: How do GPS III satellites compare with Galileo FOC satellite constellation? Achieve parity (Galileo 2 frequency, current GPS 1)? or leapfrogging over Galileo technology?

A: I cannot speak for Galileo’s capabilities but the U.S. Air Force’s Global Positioning System (GPS) has been the gold standard for PNT for more than 20 years. Lockheed Martin’s GPS experience includes more than 250 collective years of on-orbit operations for the 19 GPS IIR and IIR-M satellites that make up about 60 percent in today’s GPS constellation. With GPS III being the most powerful GPS satellite ever designed and built, I am confident GPS III will maintain that PNT gold standard ranking.

Q: There were clock anomalies in Galileo. What are you doing to avoid similar issues? Are GPS III clock’s different or the same?

A: GPS III Rubidium Atomic Frequency Standards (RAFS) have evolved from GPS IIR and IIR-M RAFS, which have collectively and reliably provided more than 250 years of on-orbit service, including significant time beyond their intended design lives. Our GPS III RAFS clocks undergo rigorous environmental qualification and life tests to assure performance over this next generation satellite’s 15-year design life.  In addition, each GPS III SV includes multiple RAFS for redundancy.  GPS III continually monitors the active RAFS to detect and mitigate clock anomalies.  This is just one way that GPS III provides increased signal integrity for GPS users.

Galileo clocks utilize different suppliers than GPS III clocks. The GPS III clock supplier has produced reliable RAFS clocks for GPS satellites over the past several decades.

[end of Mark Stewart interview]

Ground Control

The GPS III satellite program is heavily dependent on the GPS Next Generation Operational Control System (GPS OCX), which according to  government officials has experienced developmental issues and remains under General Accounting Office (GAO) scrutiny.

In assessing the implications, it’s important to note that OCX’s development is delivered in blocks, with Block 0 comprising the Launch and Checkout System required to take GPS III satellites into early orbit. Block 1 is built on Block 0  and will deliver the full OCX capability, allowing the Air Force to transition from its current GPS ground controls to the modernized and secure GPS OCX master control station.

According to the OCX prime contractor, Raytheon, all coding for Block 0 is complete and testing is wrapping up for delivery. Block 1 development is ongoing with the final iteration estimated to be completed in late 2018.

Findings in a recent GAO report are prompting examination of the reasons for the cost overruns and delays in military development programs. Meanwhile, the Air Force is looking at ways to modify the existing GPS control system to enable the operational use of the GPS III satellites until delivery of the OCX Block 1. Regardless, the Air Force may need to delay the launch of multiple GPS III satellites, according to the GAO.

Mr. Bezos, Mr. Musk, Mr. Branson … are you out there?

This article is tagged with , , , , and posted in GNSS, Opinions

About the Author: Alan Cameron

Alan Cameron is the former editor-at-large of GPS World magazine.