Lockheed Martin [LMT] said Monday its team developing the Air Force’s next generational Global Positioning System (GPS) III satellites has completed thermal vacuum testing for the Navigation Payload Element (NPE) of the GPS III Non-Flight Satellite Testbed (GNST), a full-sized prototype of a GPS III satellite.

The milestone is one of several environmental tests verifying the navigation payload’s quality of workmanship and increased performance compared to the current generation of satellites. Lockheed Martin spokesman Michael Friedman said Monday the NPE, which he described as the heart of every GPS III satellite, provides the critical position, navigation and timing signals to users worldwide. Friedman said with advanced atomic clocks, the GPS III NPE will deliver the most accurate GPS signals in history.

During thermal vacuum testing, the NPE’s performance was proven in a vacuum environment at the extreme hot and cold temperatures it will experience on orbit to ensure it will operate as planned once in space. Friedman said the NPE was mechanically integrated with the GNST last weekend and the company expects to power-on the integrated space vehicle system module just after Thanksgiving. Friedman also said Lockheed Martin expects to perform electrical testing by the end of 2012.

Friedman said Lockheed Martin is on schedule to deliver the fully integrated GNST to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., by April, adding the launch operations team will then take the GNST through several risk reduction activities in preparation for the first space vehicle. Following its pathfinding activities at the launch site, the GNST will be shipped back to Lockheed Martin’s GPS processing facility near Denver, where it will be used as a test bed for flight vehicle troubleshooting and any capability insertion planned on future satellites. Friedman said this approach reduces risk, improves production predictability, increases mission assurance and lowers overall program costs.

Lockheed Martin in September performed the first major hardware delivery for the first GPS III satellite, delivering its propulsion core module to the GPS processing facility. This highlighted the facility’s initial assembly, integration and test activities on the satellite (Defense Daily, Sept. 27).

Lockheed Martin is on contract to deliver the first four GPS III satellites for launch.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for GPS III with ITT Exelis [XLS], General Dynamics [GD], Infinity Systems Engineering, Honeywell [HON] and ATK [ATK], among others, serving as subcontractors.