By Marina Malenic

The first Global Positioning System Block IIF satellite, which is expected to initiate a new safety-of-life civil signal and upgrade existing service to both civil and military users, remains scheduled for launch, Air Force officials said recently.

Late last week, the launch of the first GPS IIF satellite was delayed. Mission managers determined that a piece of ground support equipment used to control one of the swing arms on the Fixed Umbilical Tower was not operating correctly. The component was to be replaced before the United Launch Alliance [ULA] Delta IV rocket is launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Safety of Life is a civilian-use signal, broadcast on the L5 frequency. In addition to that new capability, the satellite will provide superior anti-jam resistance and improve signal quality for all users, said Col. Dave Madden, commander of the Air Force’s Global Positioning Systems Wing at the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), Air Force Space Command, Los Angeles AFB, Calif.

The new satellite will be the first GPS vehicle to launch aboard a Delta IV rocket. Previous increments were placed into orbit aboard a Delta II.

“With the Delta IV, we have much more rocket than with Delta II,” Madden told reporters during a teleconference. “We can now directly inject the satellite into its orbit.”

With the less powerful Delta II, the space vehicle was first placed into low-earth orbit (LEO), before traveling several more days onto its permanent orbit.

Madden said cost for research and development, as well as testing, for the first three satellites in the IIF block is about $1 billion. He said the average cost of a IIF satellite is expected to be approximately $121 million.

The next satellite is scheduled to launch at the end of the year. The Air Force is planning to install 2-3 per year until all 12 are on orbit.

Madden said that 27 GPS satellites are needed on orbit to ensure the availability of at least 24 of them at any given time. Currently, there are 30 healthy GPS satellites on orbit because, according to Madden, some vehicles have outlasted their life expectancy.

“As a result, we’re keeping those vehicles on orbit and operating them and getting every drop of life out of them,” he said. “That means that we are getting better capability worldwide.”

The space vehicles have a 14-16 year lifespan, according to Madden.

The colonel also acknowledged that the shrinking U.S. space industrial base is affecting satellite work across the board. However, because GPS space technology has not changed dramatically since its initial 1978 launch, the Air Force and industry have been able to improve upon manufacturing techniques.

“As we’ve shrunk down the industrial base, parts quality has become more of a challenge,” he said. “But with GPS, we have not fundamentally changed the core of the satellite….So we have gotten better and better at it.”

Boeing [BA] is the prime contactor for the satellites, while United Launch Alliance, a joint venture formed by Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Boeing, provides the rockets.

Earlier this year, the Air Force selected Raytheon [RTN] to develop and field a new advanced control segment (OCX) for the constellation. Raytheon and Boeing are developing the OCX, which is expected to include anti-jam capabilities and improved security, accuracy and reliability. That contract is worth up to $1.5 billion over the life of the program.