Some GPS satellites could fail before replacements arrive

The oldest of America's navigation satellites soared into the heavens just as the Mazda Miata first took to the road down here on Earth.

Like a rusty 1989 sports car, those artificial moons may have some more life. But like that old Mazda, they could give out any time now.

GPS satellites originally scheduled to head skyward in 2006 in a $7 billion-plus program aimed at keeping the system going are awaiting launch in 2010.

The delay means pieces of the high-altitude network could start falling out of service as early as next year. Such decay in the system could ultimately foul everything from the accuracy of U.S. bombs to the reliability of your neighborhood cash machine.

"It's ubiquitous. It's like electricity," said Cristina Chaplain of the Government Accountability Office. "Now we're not launching new satellites as quickly as they're expected to die."

Yet it would take Chicken Little to predict that the wonders of the global positioning system are about to tumble into collapse.

The U.S. Air Force has 30 navigation satellites stationed above the planet. Two dozen of those are needed for millions of military and civilian uses. Some of the oldest were rocketed into orbit 20 years ago. The newest went up last month.

Some of the extras can be shifted to replace satellites that fail.

Yet, said a recent GAO report, "there is a high risk that the Air Force will not meet its schedule for GPS." Next year, the GAO said, there's a 5 percent chance that fewer than 24 will be working. In 2011 and 2012, that jumps to 20 percent.

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