Space Force may launch GPS demonstration satellites to test new tech
The Space Force is exploring options for expanding the capabilities of its GPS satellites and is asking companies to
The Space Force is exploring options for expanding the capabilities of its GPS satellites and is asking companies to propose ideas for delivering low-cost demonstration spacecraft to help test new technologies.
Space Systems Command, the service’s primary acquisition organization, said in a Feb. 5 notice it is conducting market research to refine its concept for a constellation of GPS demonstration satellites.
“The government is studying ways to reduce lifecycle cost and increase the pace of GPS satellite development, production and on-orbit deployment,” Space Systems Command said. “The government is developing a vision for tranches of demonstration prototype satellites of increasingly complex capabilities.”
Because the service is still in the exploration phase, the notice doesn’t offer details on how soon the first satellites would launch. It emphasizes that the Space Force is interested in systems with a three to five year lifespan that could be available for launch within six months of a contract award.
The Space Force has around 31 operational GPS satellites in orbit, a mix of modern and older spacecraft providing varying levels of capability. The newest satellites, dubbed GPS III, are built by Lockheed Martin and provide three times greater accuracy and much-improved anti-jamming abilities than previous variants. They also offer a capability called M-code, which offers a secure and accurate signal for military users.
Lockheed is also developing the next iteration of space vehicles, GPS IIIF, which will build on the accuracy and anti-jam protections of the GPS III satellites. Slated to begin launching in 2027, they will also feature upgraded nuclear detection detonation system and search and rescue payloads.
While today’s satellites provide key military and civilian capabilities, the Space Force has been considering how it can augment them with alternative systems, including smaller satellites that are cheaper, easier to produce and able to operate in degraded areas where GPS isn’t accessible today. A constellation of demonstration satellites could help the service validate and quickly field new augmentation capabilities or inform upgrade plans for future GPS satellites.
“The intent of this overall effort is to explore opportunities for non-traditional and/or traditional space vendors to rapidly manufacture, integrate, and make available for launch, navigation payloads that are interoperable with existing and future GPS User Equipment while minimizing change to current and future GPS ground control segments,” the service said.
The service has other efforts to showcase new satellite navigation technology. Later this year it will launch Navigation Technology Satellite-3, an experimental spacecraft developed by L3Harris and the Air Force Research Laboratory.
Once launched, NTS-3 will conduct more than 100 experiments testing different technology, including a digital signal generator that can be reprogrammed in orbit to broadcast new signals.
The Space Force’s Commercial Space Office is also working with its innovation arm, SpaceWERX, to identify alternative navigation capabilities. Col. Richard Kniseley, senior materiel leader for the office, told C4ISRNET the goal of that effort is to provide seed funding for non-traditional companies to mature capabilities.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.