On a historic day of four planned space launches, Lockheed Martin Corp. is betting that the first of its long-delayed, next-generation Global Positioning System satellites can do its job even though congressional investigators say it has suspect capacitors that could undermine its mission.
A GPS-III satellite scheduled to be sent into orbit by Elon Musk’s SpaceX on Tuesday morning in Florida is the first of a new wave of spacecraft which promise greater accuracy and stronger signals to help guide everything from ride-sharing services to missiles.
But the satellite, launching four years late, contains about 600 suspect capacitors out of nearly 28,000 parts used on its navigation payload. The Air Force decided in 2016 not to replace them after the capacitors were discovered on the second and third satellites being built and pulled them out.
All sides agreed that the subcontractor at the time, Exelis Inc. and now Harris Corp. had failed to do required testing on the capacitors five years earlier, in 2011, with Lockheed saying it was responsible for maintaining oversight of its subcontractors. Despite the setback, the Air Force, Lockheed and Harris all expressed confidence that the satellite will operate as expected.
The Air Force decided that the risk in taking it apart and reassembling it “to remove and replace the capacitors was greater than the risk of launching the satellite ‘as is,’” said Cristina Chaplain, director of space acquisition oversight for the independent Government Accountability Office, via email.
The $529 million satellite was already 28 months late at the time in 2016 when the service began investigating capacitor failures. But “rigorous” ground testing of the satellite gave the companies and the Air Force confidence they could go forward without opening up the satellite, Chaplain said.
Nevertheless, “by definition, this satellite has a greater level of risk built in,” she added, saying “cost and schedule considerations also were at play, obviously,” in the decision not to tamper with the first satellite.
The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center said in an email that the satellite, which weighs 9,700 pounds when fueled, “has undergone more than 11,000 hours of testing without capacitor failures, giving further confidence” that it “will perform nominally.”
The center said the current constellation of GPS satellites “is robust and can absorb” an “early mission degradation should any failures happen on orbit” with the new satellite. The navigation payload units “are internally redundant and it would take multiple capacitor failures” before the satellite “would experience system degradation,” the center said.
Harris spokeswoman Ellen Mitchell and Lockheed spokesman Chip Eschenfelder echoed that view in separate emails, saying the satellite has been rigorously tested and the navigation payload’s capacitors experienced no issues. They said the payload is mission ready and will operate as intended.
Pentagon combat testing and systems engineering specialists aren’t as confident. Test officials for Director of Operational Test and Evaluation Robert Behler currently assess that capacitor reliability risks may limit operational effectiveness once in orbit.
Similarly, the Pentagon’s systems engineering office said in a recent assessment to Defense Department officials and congressional staff that although the second through 10th GPS III satellites under construction “are predicted to exceed” their reliability requirements, the first “is at high risk’’ as a result of the “suspect capacitors.”
A failure or a significant degradation in performance would be an embarrassing turn of events for the military and the companies. Lockheed was the sole bidder on a second batch of up to 22 more GPS III satellites valued at as much as $7.2 billion. That came despite a myriad of problems during the program’s early phase that led to more than $600 million in added costs and four years of delay.
The capacitors in question on the satellite in Tuesday’s launch are a critical part in a series of circuit cards that take higher-voltage power from the main power system and reduce it to a voltage required for specific subsystems.
Even with a successful launch and placement into orbit, the satellite won’t be operational for at least a year as it goes through at least six months of system and component checks and another six months of integration testing with the existing GPS constellation, Air Force officials told reporters Dec 14.
Musk’s Record Year
The satellite is the first of a series meant to replace 31 older but still reliable models in orbit today.
The launch on a Falcon 9 rocket is the finale of a strong year for SpaceX. Musk’s closely held company debuted its new Falcon Heavy rocket in February, then went on to fly a record number of missions.
If Tuesday’s effort goes off without a hitch, it will be SpaceX’s 21st successful launch of the year. The window for the mission opens at 9:11 a.m. EST. Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to be in attendance for the launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Florida’s east coast.
Later in the day there are three more launches slated: Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, France’s Arianespace and United Launch Alliance, the joint venture between Boeing Co. and Lockheed, all are scheduled to fly to space.