SVN-35, also a Block IIA satellite, had been decommissioned from active service back in 2009 to make room in the constellation for the launch and eventual deployment of the latest new GPS Block IIR vehicle.However, over the last few days, SVN-35 is showing it’s age.
Even while it was removed from the almanac of the active constellation, SVN-35 maintained accurate timing and navigation signals; so, when the need arose for a spare, 2 SOPS analysts knew just where to go.
The ClockThe atomic clock onboard SVN-35 that’s currently active is showing signs of instability. Atomic clocks are quantum mechanical devices and by nature they have random outputs. Fortunately we have developed the technology to the point where we can use the devices for positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) applications that require sub-nanosecond accuracy. When the clocks start to age however, the random outputs become less controllable, causing larger PNT errors.
Predictable BehaviorThe Second Space Operations Squadron (2SOPs), using Master Control Station algorithms, predicts the behavior of all the clocks on orbit in the GPS constellation. They upload those predictions to the satellites which then broadcast them to your GPS receiver. Your receiver then calculates clock parameters necessary for your position determination. When a clock becomes unstable their predictions no longer match the behavior very well, leading to potentially large PNT errors.
The Last 10 DaysOver the last 10 days, since SVN-35 was set healthy again, the output of the clock is becoming less predictable. The figure below shows the 10 day history of SVN-35’s clock error, the larger the error, the less predictable it’s behavior:
Each time the error goes back to zero (or close to zero), 2SOPS has intervened and uploaded new clock predictions to the satellite. There are times when it behaves well (just after Aug 22) then there are times it behaves badly (Aug 23). This instability is a key indicator of a dying clock.
Here’s a picture of the last three days:
On August 23, 2SOPs uploaded new predictions to SVN-35 six times, that’s 6 times the normal tempo. A normal tempo is once per day. Here’s a picture showing a comparison of SVN-35 (PRN-30) to arguably the best clock in the constellation, SVN-41 (PRN-14):
You can see that SVN-41 has a much more stable, predictable clock that SVN-35 has.
UnusableOn Friday, August 26th, 2SOPs again set SVN-35 unusable until further notice (NANU 2011-070), and has delayed maintenance on SVN-43 (PRN-13) presumably because of this. Will SVN-35 come back? Can its clock be saved once again? Are there additional clocks on SVN-35 that might be better? We may not know for awhile. Unlike with a jury however, the longer it takes for SVN-35 to return, the less likely it is for a favorable outcome.
PS: All of the graphs were produced from my GPS Satellite Performance website here: http://adn.agi.com/GNSSWeb/PAFPSFViewer.aspx. A GPS Satellite Outage Calendar is also available, where you can track each satellite’s outage history and future outages: http://adn.agi.com/SatelliteOutageCalendar/SOFCalendar.aspx.