GPS brownout unlikely

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Some of the satellites that make up the Global Positioning System are scheduled to be replaced as early as this fall.

Some of the satellites that make up the Global Positioning System are scheduled to be replaced as early as this fall.

The possible loss of satellite service because of aging equipment prompted the government to issue a cautionary report last month, but any fear seems to be based on contractor delays in finishing new satellites by fall rather than concern about mechanical failure.

The news generated national media attention – and dozens of stories about potential interruptions in service – called brownouts –  have been published or aired during the last few weeks.

The brouhaha was based more on the GAO’s concern that the Air Force needed to be more cost-conscious and proactive in awarding contracts.

This month, Computerworld quoted officials at Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs who said that “GPS will not go down.” 

Col. Dave Buckman, command lead for position, navigation and timing at Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs, told the online technology publication that while there is “some risk of degraded performance as a result of delays in launching new satellites … the service is not in danger of failing.”

More than 50 million civil and 100,000 Department of Defense users rely on the Global Positioning System – much of which is supported by command and control technology originating in the Pikes Peak region.

GPS technology, which got its start during the 1970s, has been adopted throughout the world.

 Allaying fears

The civilian side of the GPS equation appears equally at ease.

Garmin spokesman Ted Gartner said the Olathe, Kan.-based navigational system manufacturer “isn’t worried.”

“It’s not likely that the Air Force will let the GPS grid fail – especially in wartime,” he said. “Besides, every fleet of trucks, everyone in transportation and utilities – they all rely on GPS.  That’s not to say that there aren’t challenges to keep all the satellites functioning.  But as far as possibly losing all signal – it’s too valuable commercially and militarily to let that happen.”

That said, the possibility that the current satellite constellation might contain fewer than 29 or 30 operational satellites for national security and for commercial use – up from the 24 satellite minimum established by the government during the 1970s and 1980s – sent tremors through all sectors. 

Dr. Bradford Parkinson of Stanford University’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics – and the original GPS program manager – discussed the problem in testimony before Congress.  He said the situation has been exacerbated by “bad procurement practices” imposed during the 1990s, by the lack of parts for aging equipment and by the inability of developers to get updated designs completed in time to replace satellites still in service.

Parkinson also attributed the delay in contracting for the latest “IIIA” satellite upgrade to the DoD’s complex approval process, and said that the private sector has been hard-pressed to meet the growing need for a full complement of working satellites and for ground-to-satellite command and control.

Parkinson said that at least six new satellites will be needed by 2016 to ensure a continued constellation of 24 to 30.