The team has begun design work on an Atlas V Dual Satellite System 5, which will feature a canister structure surrounding the bottom satellite. This will provide separate load paths for two spacecraft on a single booster. The dual-launch concept points to an Atlas V with a 5-meter (16-ft.) fairing and five strap-on solid rocket motors.
Though industry says the system can be ready in three years, the Air Force is taking a more conservative approach. One industry official suggests this is so ULA does not have an advantage over Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), which is still developing its Falcon family to compete with the Atlas V and Delta IV.
GPS is the most the most likely entry point for SpaceX into the Air Force market because of the satellite's size and projected launch frequency.
Though the dual-launch work being done today is focused on GPS III, Lockheed Martin officials say some lessons could be applied to other programs and “pay dividends not only on GPS, but for the entire Air Force for years to come.”
The A2100 bus also hosts the costly and sophisticated Advanced Extremely High Frequency protected, nuclear-hardened communications system, as well as the Space-Based Infrared System early missile-warning satellites. These two systems, however, are being built in far smaller quantities—four or five of them comprise a constellation versus 28-32 for GPS—and at greater cost. Lockheed Martin, eager to keep those programs alive after a decade of developmental problems and cost overruns, is sure to crunch the numbers and propose dual-launch options for them, though.
The savings achieved with this strategy is likely an interim step for the Air Force. Far greater efficiencies could be possible if industry can either mature reusable launch systems or shrink the size of satellites enough to reduce the need for large boosters.
Meanwhile, Lockheed is continuing development work on GPS III since winning the contract in 2008, a potentially long-term win that could put rival Boeing out of the GPS business once its IIF satellite program wraps up. Lockheed shipped the propulsion core for the first operational spacecraft late last month to its Denver facility for integration with other satellite components. The first power-on event for GPS III satellite 1 is slated for next month, Jackson says.
In April, the pathfinder will be shipped to Cape Canaveral AFS, where operators will run it through the pre-launch process for practice. It is slated for launch availability in May 2014, with the second satellite expected about nine months later. Actual launch dates could vary if the life of in-orbit spacecraft surpasses expectations.
GPS III is being designed to a 15-year in-orbit life.