GPS analysts bridge gap between launch, orbit

GPS analysts bridge gap between launch, orbit

By [email protected] (Scott Prater)

 The Air Force launched four GPS satellites into orbit this year, the highest number of GPS launches since 1993.  But as the Air Force quickly upgrades its most recognizable space constellation, a little known group of Airmen works tirelessly behind the scenes.

Between the time a satellite is launched and the 50th Space Wing receives satellite control authority for it, a small team is busy testing and evaluating, ensuring that each spacecraft is ready to begin its job of providing position, navigation, and timing to more than 3 billion worldwide users.

As part of the 2 SOPS Mission Analysis Flight, these analysts work through a complex launch and early-orbit process, all while maintaining each of the other 38 satellites in the GPS constellation.

“It can be a stressful time,” said 1st Lt. Robert Heffner, 2 SOPS chief of GPS subsystems analysis shop. “If there is a lag on anyone’s part, it can set the whole launch timeline off, which means more work for everyone.”

Their work often begins more than 60 days out from launch.

Heffner, who concentrates on the GPS vehicle or “bus,” first sets up links with the satellite as it sits on the ground at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

“We start with compatibility tests,” he said. “Our teammates at the Cape plug it into our monitor-station network. We put the vehicle in a known configuration, upload software and then ensure its components are functioning properly. This is our last chance to test before launch. We don’t want any surprises when it’s actually on orbit.”

As Heffner evaluates the vehicle, Capt. Aaron Blain, 2 SOPS chief of GPS navigation payload analysis shop, focuses on the spacecraft’s payload – it’s position, navigation, and timing components.  Like Heffner, he’s testing and ensuring functionality.

Much of the action occurs while the satellite is still waiting to be lifted on to a launch platform at the Cape.
Following the launch, their work kicks into an even higher gear.

Once the vehicle reaches its proper orbit, 2nd Lt. Christopher Phillips, 2 SOPS chief of NDS analysis and tactics shop, begins testing and evaluating the secondary payload that resides on every GPS vehicle: the Nuclear Detonation Detection System.

Though GPS is perhaps the most recognizable satellite constellation in the world, it’s safe to say most people don’t know that each of its satellites carries an NDS payload.

“NDS performs an important mission,” Phillips said. “It helps verify the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963. It makes sense. The whole reason the GPS constellation has these nuclear detonation sensors is because it provides global coverage. We can see every part of the planet.”

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Source:: Air Force Space Command