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The US Air Force needs to act now, report says

There is growing concern that the current global positioning system network of satellites used by the United States is aging and will begin to routinely fail starting in 2010, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report indicates.

The U.S. Air Force now uses 30 different GPS satellites -- which launched into orbit in the early 1990s -- and has become noticeably less reliable and may be sending inaccurate navigational information to people using mobile GPS units.

In 2010 "as old satellites begin to fail, the overall GPS constellation will fall below the number of satellites required to provide the level of GPS service that the U.S. government commits to," the GAO's "Global Positioning System: Significant Challenges in Sustaining and Upgrading Widely Used Capabilities" report claims.

The US government is expected to invest almost $6 billion into new GPS satellite technology over the next four years, in an attempt to try and get back on schedule after suffering several years of "significant" technical issues.  If the Air Force is unable to get back on track, however, the GAO warns there could be wide-ranging ramifications for all GPS users.

As there is growing concern regarding GPS, Boeing recently lost a lawsuit that would have prevented the Air Force from disclosing Boeing GPS satellites cost.  Boeing believes Lockheed Martin, the company's biggest competitor, may be behind the request, which was filed several years ago under a Freedom of Information request.

A few years ago only specialized GPS units made use of GPS, but now many mobile phones and smartphones now utilize the technology for consumers to enjoy.  Furthermore, an even larger number of new cars are shipping from the factory with built-in GPS units.

However, there is a much larger concern regarding possible intercontinental flights being canceled or delayed, and the military's reduced amount of "smart bombs" for use in Afghanistan.

It should be interesting to see if the Air Force is able to straighten out budget issues and make sure there isn't a serious GPS gap in the coming years.  Military officials said its IIIA block of satellites will be launched three years earlier than planned, but the GAO report said it's "optimistic given the program's late start, past trends in space acquisitions, and challenges facing the new contractor."

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Don't Believe It
By Shadowself on 5/20/2009 10:11:26 AM , Rating: 5
First, the full system capability only needs 24 satellites to work. There are currently six spares in orbit (the standard complement of on orbit spares).

Second, virtually all the GPS satellites have lasted longer and performed better than their original design specifications since the early Block I days of the early 80s -- some lasting as much as three times longer than expected.

Third, there are spares already built sitting in storage on the ground. Not many, but they exist. As the on orbit spares are used up to replace the current operational birds as they die out the ground spares will be launched. Even if no new ground spares are built I don't expect the constellation to drop below the critical 24 operational birds before 2012. Statistically, it could happen long before that, but it is extremely unlikely.

The real issue is getting birds on orbit that have the new frequencies and waveforms. These will be more secure, "spoof proof" and jam proof. When these birds will become prevalent enough on orbit to make these new functions fully operational is anybody's guess.

This GAO report is taking a worst case scenario. The history of the GPS constellation does not support this.

RE: Don't Believe It
By FITCamaro on 5/20/2009 11:57:55 AM , Rating: 2
Good informative post.

RE: Don't Believe It
By Ammohunt on 5/20/2009 2:57:58 PM , Rating: 2
its my understanding that there are mulitple GPS systems. The newer one being used for Military purposes and the old one being uses by the civilian market.

RE: Don't Believe It
By jhb116 on 5/20/2009 5:24:27 PM , Rating: 3
The 6 spares are actually used by the community at large. The current design allows for 30 operational satellites. 24 refers to the minimum number satellites (4 per plane spread over 6 planes) required to provide 24/7 coverage worldwide.

The GAO report represents the fact that more than half of the satellites on orbit are past their design life. There are spares on the ground largely because the satellites on orbit have far outlasted their expected design lives. The AF tries to get maximum use out of each satellite before launching a new replacement. If one fails - a (or a couple) spare will be repositioned within their plane to prevent coverage gaps. If the failure prevents the satellite from returning to operational status - then they look at replacing that satellite with a launch.

RE: Don't Believe It
By jhb116 on 5/20/2009 5:26:31 PM , Rating: 2
Sorry - forgot to post a link for those interested in a more detail of the status from 2006.

RE: Don't Believe It
By inperfectdarkness on 5/22/2009 12:57:41 PM , Rating: 2
i have an about we have the CSAF petition for federal bailout money to "maintain & improve" the gps system. according to this would require less $$$ than GM has gotten already.

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