Sat. Dec 2nd, 2023
The Future of GPS III Missions and the Evolution of GPS Technology

The Space Systems Command (SSC) has announced 21 new mission assignments expected to launch within the next two to three years. Among these assignments are the last projected GPS III missions and the first follow-on missions.

The GPS III-9 and GPS III-10 missions will be launched by United Launch Alliance (ULA), while the follow-on GPS III satellite, GPS IIIF-1, will be launched with SpaceX. The GPS Block IIIF satellites bring several improvements and novel capabilities compared to previous GPS satellite blocks.

Lockheed Martin, the company responsible for building next-generation GPS III/IIIF satellites, aims to modernize GPS by constructing up to 32 satellites, with a current contract for 10. These satellites provide up to three times better accuracy, enhanced anti-jamming capabilities, a new L1C civil signal compatible with international GNSS systems, and a modular design for future technological enhancements.

The first GPS IIIF satellites are set to launch in late 2026, with subsequent launches scheduled every four months thereafter. This intensified launch tempo aims to increase satellite capabilities rather than merely replacing retiring satellites. Satellites typically operate for over 25 years, often ceasing operation due to atomic clock failure.

Once in orbit, GPS IIIF satellites will offer regional military protection (RMP) with a boosted M-code signal, increased M-code power and resiliency in disadvantaged areas, and a search and rescue (SAR) payload. By the end of the decade, satellites will be updatable while still in orbit, facilitating faster modernization.

SpaceX has already launched the GPS III SV06 mission earlier this year and has planned missions for GPS III SV07 in 2024 and SV08 in 2025.

The SSC’s 21 launch service missions are part of the FY24 National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement contract. ULA has received 11 mission assignments, while SpaceX has received 10. These missions encompass a range of objectives, including missile warning, military data connectivity, evaluating sensor designs, and, of course, GPS modernization.

The increased launch tempo reflects the critical role of space-based capabilities in providing essential information to support the military and national decision-making processes, thereby staying ahead of potential adversarial forces.