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Lockheed's satellite boost system under Air Force review

By TONY CAPACCIO | Bloomberg | Published: March 2, 2017

The U.S. Air Force has opened a review of the propulsion systems used for Lockheed Martin's military satellites after an undisclosed problem during a recent attempt to boost one into orbit, according to the service.

The review has delayed once again the Air Force's acceptance of Lockheed's first new Global Positioning System satellite, which is already 34 months late. The most recent delivery goal had been Feb. 28, and the plan remains to launch it by spring of 2018.

While there's no evidence that the propulsion system on the first, $524 million satellite in the new GPS III series has a flaw, the Air Force has decided to keep it in storage at a Lockheed facility "out of an abundance of caution," Capt. AnnMarie Annicelli, an Air Force spokeswoman, said in an email. It was placed into storage "after having successfully completed all planned test and integration activities," she said.

The review of Lockheed's A2100 propulsion subsystem involves the GPS III -- an improved version of the navigation systems used by the military and civilians worldwide -- as well as the company's Advanced Extremely-High Frequency communication satellite and its Space Based Infrared early warning satellite, Annicelli said. Chip Eschenfelder, a spokesman for Lockheed's space systems unit, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The review is focused on operations that boost into proper orbit military satellites that use the contractor's A2100 system, Annicelli said, declining to provide additional details. Satellites boost themselves into a designated orbit using on-board propulsion systems in what's called a "transfer orbit operation."

"This review will assure" that the first GPS III satellite is ready to launch next year, she said. The Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center "is currently evaluating subsystem performance across" the three Lockheed satellite programs, she said. "It is not possible to give a definite prediction on how long it will take to" finish the review, she said.

The U.S. Air Force's third Space Based Infrared System Geosynchronous Earth Orbit satellite launches into space on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V Evolved Expendable launch Vehicle from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., Jan. 20, 2017.
SARAH CORRICE/U.S. AIR FORCE

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