The Air Force’s first GPS III space vehicle (SV01) last week has been enclosed within its payload fairing in anticipation of a mid-December launch date.

“Vespucci,” as the satellite is known, was encapsulated within a SpaceX-made payload fairing Dec. 7 at Astrotech Space Operations in California, the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center said in a Dec. 10 release. The Lockheed Martin [LMT]-built space vehicle is scheduled to launch Dec. 18 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The U.S. Air Force's first Lockheed Martin-built GPS III satellite prepares for encapsulation before launch
The U.S. Air Force’s first Lockheed Martin-built GPS III satellite prepares for encapsulation before launch

“Vespucci will augment the current 31-satellite constellation to continue to provide the ‘gold standard’ in positioning, navigation, and timing services for more than four billion users worldwide,” the release said.

The GPS III systems are intended to possess three times better accuracy and up to eight times improved anti-jamming capabilities than the U.S. military’s current fleet of GPS satellites, according to Lockheed Martin. Spacecraft life will extend to 15 years, and GPS III’s new L1C civil signal will make it the first GPS satellite broadcasting a compatible signal with other international global navigation satellite systems, such as Galileo, and in doing so will improve connectivity for civilian users.

“The world is dependent on GPS. More than four billion military, commercial and civilian users connect with signals generated by GPS satellites every day,” said Johnathon Caldwell, Lockheed Martin’s vice president for navigation systems, in a statement. “The launch of GPS III SV01 will be the first step in modernizing the Air Force’s GPS constellation with the most powerful and resilient GPS satellites ever designed and built.”

GPS III SV01 is the first of 10 GPS III satellites originally ordered by the Air Force. It was manufactured at Lockheed Martin’s GPS III Processing Facility near Denver, and declared “available for launch” by the Air Force in September 2017.  The Air Force “called up” the satellite for launch in summer 2018 and the company delivered it to Florida on Aug. 20.

GPS III SV03-08 is now in various stages of assembly and test, according to Lockheed Martin. In August, the Air Force declared the second GPS III available for launch and, in November, called GPS III SV02 up for a 2019 launch (Defense Daily, Nov. 20).

This past September, the Air Force selected Lockheed Martin for the GPS III Follow On (GPS IIIF) program, which could be worth up to $7.2 billion to build 22 additional GPS IIIF satellites with heightened capabilities. On Sept. 26, the Air Force awarded Lockheed Martin a $1.4 billion contract for support to start up the program and to contract the 11th and 12th GPS III satellite (Defense Daily, Sept. 26).