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Lockheed gets greenlight for GPS III satellites

The defense contractor wins a $1.4 billion contract from the U.S. Air Force to build the next generation of navigation satellites, set to be more accurate and more resistant to jamming.

Lockheed Martin GPS satellite
With many years of experience in GPS and in satellite technology generally, Lockheed Martin is now charged with leading the development and deployment of the next-generation GPS III system. Lockheed Martin

If you haven't already joined the rush to buy a handheld GPS device, you probably will soon. Or maybe your next new car will come with built-in navigation capabilities. It's increasingly likely, too, that your cell phone has GPS built in.

For all the attention on the millions of gadgets that use GPS, the heart of the Global Positioning System really is the network of satellites orbiting the globe and relaying signals to your Garmin. That network is now due for an upgrade, starting in the middle of the next decade.

At Lockheed Martin's Valley Forge, Pa., plant, a GPS IIR(M) satellite gets packaged for delivery to Cape Canaveral in anticipation of its June launch date. Stephen B. Griffith/Lockheed Martin

Earlier this week, Lockheed Martin announced that it had been awarded a $1.4 billion contract from the U.S. Air Force to build the next-generation system, known as GPS III. The goal is to deliver better accuracy and availability for both civilian and military users of the navigation technology (which, after all, was born as a military innovation).

In the first round of the undertaking, lead contractor Lockheed, along with ITT and General Dynamics, will build eight GPS IIIA satellites, the first of which is due to go into orbit in 2014. Later increments--for which no dates were specified--will see the construction and deployment of eight GPS IIIB and 16 GPS IIIC satellites, with progressively advanced capabilities.

One advance that Lockheed is promising: eventually, all of the 32 satellites will be able to receive simultaneous updates from a single ground station through a cross-linked command and control architecture. The artificial constellation will also feature "a new spot beam capability for enhanced military (M-Code) coverage and increased resistance to hostile jamming."

The Air Force is set to launch its final two Lockheed-built GPS IIR satellites, one in June and the other in September. That will make for a total of 20 IIR satellites, which are more autonomous than earlier models, put into service over the span of about a decade. These last two are among eight IIR(M) models, which provide both M-Code and L2C (for civilian use) signals. The satellite launching in June also will transmit on a frequency called L5, intended primarily for aviation safety-of-life applications.

Whatever the new satellites deliver in specific functions, they'll certainly be sending signals to a wider audience. In January, the Swedish analyst firm Berg Insight said the number of GPS-enabled handsets is set to more than triple during the next five years, reaching an expected worldwide total of 560 million handsets by 2012.

The European rival to GPS, called Galileo, is expected to be fully operational by 2013.