Latest milestone brings NTS-3 Vanguard closer to 2023 launch

KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. (AFRL) – The Department of the Air Force’s Navigation Technology Satellite-3, or NTS-3, Vanguard program has reached another major milestone in preparation for the satellite’s launch in late 2023.

program manager presenting program details

Arlen Biersgreen, program manager for Navigation Technology Satellite-3, or NTS-3, uses a 1:3 scale model to describe the spacecraft and details of the one-year experimental mission during the 2022 Media Day June 23, 2022, at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. The event took place at the Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, Space Vehicles Directorate and Directed Energy Directorate with AFRL leadership and guests in attendance. (U.S. Air Force photo / Andrea Rael)

Industry partner L3Harris Technologies, the spacecraft prime contractor, recently delivered the NTS-3 space vehicle to an Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, integration and test facility at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. The satellite integrates an agile positioning, navigation and timing, or PNT, payload to the Northrop Grumman ESPAStar bus, to provide a space platform for AFRL and partner organization experiments and integrated capability demonstrations.

In 2019, the U.S. Department of the Air Force designated NTS-3 as one of the first three Vanguard programs to deliver innovative, game-changing capabilities to the warfighter at an accelerated pace. NTS-3, which is managed by the AFRL Transformational Capabilities Office and has program partners in both the U.S. Space Force and U.S. Air Force, will push the boundary of PNT technology to pave the way for a more flexible, robust and resilient architecture for satellite navigation.

Arlen Biersgreen, the NTS-3 program manager, was thrilled to witness the delivery of the space vehicle and all ground support equipment needed for the remaining integration and test tasks.

“This major milestone marks the transition from space system development at contractor’s facilities to the final stage of integration and test activities,” Biersgreen said. “The AFRL team will be overseeing and working closely with L3Harris and other key industry partners to apply an effective combination of contractor and government resources to successfully complete this phase of the effort.”

AFRL and L3Harris are now completing the remaining intra-payload and payload-to-bus functional and performance tests, including the first radio frequency broadcast tests of the novel PNT signals that will be demonstrated from near-geosynchronous orbit after the NTS-3 launch.

Biersgreen said following those activities, the team will perform standard space environment tests that simulate the launch and space environments to verify the system is ready for the rigors of experimental operations in space. He added that experimental performance data from ground testing will be available for sharing with program partners during the next several months.

testing of NTS-3 spacecraft

The Navigation Technology Satellite-3, or NTS-3, spacecraft is shown in an anechoic test chamber prior to electromagnetic interference and electromagnetic compatibility testing in Palm Bay, Florida. This experimental satellite is being designed, built and tested by L3Harris Technologies, and will be used by the Air Force Research Laboratory and partner organizations as part of an integrated system to conduct a one-year demonstration of advanced technologies and concepts in satellite navigation. The NTS-3 launch is anticipated in late 2023 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida on the first U.S. government flight of the new United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket. (Courtesy Photo)

The Global Navigation Satellite System Test Architecture, or GNSSTA, developed by the MITRE Corporation in partnership with the AFRL Sensors Directorate, is crucial for meeting end-to-end NTS-3 mission objectives. GNSSTA is a reprogrammable software-defined receiver allowing users to receive both legacy GPS and advanced signals generated by NTS-3. It lays the groundwork for future operational receivers to provide the Space Force with options to prevent and respond quickly to common threats on the battlefield, like GPS jamming and spoofing.

Dr. Joanna Hinks, the NTS-3 principal investigator, has worked closely with the Sensors team on the GNSSTA development and testing.

“The entire team is excited that earlier this month, we successfully generated signals on the actual spacecraft and received them with our experimental GNSSTA user equipment,” Hinks said. “Showing the space segment and user segment working together like that is an important step to being ready to conduct experiments on-orbit.”

NTS-3 is the first U.S. experiment of its kind in nearly 50 years, since the Navy Research Laboratory’s NTS-1 and NTS-2 spacecraft led the way for the Global Positioning System, or GPS, constellation in the 1970s.

“This Vanguard not only aims to support GPS users through vital development of new technologies and techniques, but also to show how an agile and responsive U.S. satellite navigation architecture is paramount to defeating the most challenging threats to warfighter success, both today and through the coming decades,” Biersgreen said.

About AFRL

The Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,500 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit: