Officials with United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Lockheed Martin claim that an estimated $50 million per satellite could be saved by sending two GPS III spacecraft into orbit at the same time with a single rocket. Currently, each GPS satellite is launched with a single Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV), but the Air Force is hoping to start a “dual launch” program for GPS III satellites starting with the ninth satellite. Both ULA and Lockheed Martin agree that this could happen much sooner than that.
They are looking into how to safely house and eject two satellites at the same time from a single booster using funding provided by the service. One issue they have to work through is getting the spacecraft from transfer orbit into their final orbital destination. They can either boost satellite performance or develop a secondary vehicle exclusively for this transfer, among other options according to Tony Taliancich, ULA’s director of the customer program office.
Officials say the actual savings could be as much as $1.5 billion over the life of the system if the Air Force purchases 30 satellites for the GPS III constellation and sends them up two at a time.
The team working on the project has started designing an Atlas V Dual Satellite System, a canister providing separate load paths for the two satellites on a single rocket. Industry officials say the GPS III satellites would be stacked, powered by an Atlas V with a 5-meter fairing and five solid rocket strap-ons.
Officials claim this is a “low-risk” capability, and they could have it operational in about three years. The Air Force, on the other hand, would like them to take things a bit more slowly. An industry official says the reason for this is that ULA does not have an advantage over Space Exploration technologies (SpaceX), currently developing technology to compete with the Delta IVs and Atlas Vs currently offered by ULA. GPS technology is the best way for SpaceX to jump into the Air Force market.