Global Positioning System

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Global Positioning System (GPS) is a United States satellite system that lets those on the ground, on the water or in the air determine their position with extreme accuracy based on timing signals sent from satellites. You triangulate your position through the use of a GPS receiver.

The system was developed by the US Department of Defense and made available to the general public in 1983 under orders of President Reagan. GPS for civilian use used to include a mechanism called Selective Availability that intentionally limited the accuracy of GPS, a mechanism originally intended to confuse potential enemies who might launch a missile attack, but Selective Availability was disabled in 2000, and appears unlikely to be reinstated in the foreseeable future.

Prosecutors are now using data from GPS units to convict criminals. Authorities can analyse data from the GPS units to establish a defendant's whereabouts or to track suspects.[1]


When the Soviet Union launched the satellite Sputnik in 1957, American scientists of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory used Sputnik's radio-signal's Doppler Effect to track its position. They realized that a similar procedure for satellites with well known orbits would allow to calculate an unknown position on earth, and so the idea for the Transit was born: the first operational satellite-based navigation system. It consisted from seven low-altitude polar-orbiting satellites, and one of its main purposes was to provide navigation data for the Polaris missile submarines. Though it had a couple of disadvantages, the Transit system was in use until 1996.

Another project was United States Air Force's System 621B, which - other than Transit - allowed for three-dimensional navigation. The army had its own project: Army-SECO, while navy's Timation program used the most accurate clocks, deploying its first satellite in 1967 with quartz-crystal oscillators, but developing atomic clocks for its last two satellites.

In 1968 the Department of Defense coordinated these efforts by creating a tri-service committee - the navigation Satellite Executive Group (NAVSEG): the technologies of System 621B and Timation were combined under the name NAVSTAR GPS - and the last two satellites of the Timation program became the first NAVSTAR satellites: NTS-1[2] (Feb 22, 1978) and NTS-2[3] (May 13, 1978).

In 1978, the Naval Research Lab in Washington published its report on the Initial Results of the NAVSTAR GPS NTS-2 Satellite.[4] It listed the following GPS objectives that have been achieved to date:

  1. launch insertion into GPS constellation position
  2. demonstrated orbit stability and controllability
  3. first cesium frequency standard in space
  4. verification of relativity theory

Until 1985, the eleven Block I satellites were built. This number was increased until 1989 by the Block II satellites. GPS today uses 24 satellites and numerous ground stations.

GPS Receivers

GPS receivers are an extremely fast and easy way to navigate. With the ability to tell you where you are, where you're heading, how to get there, and where just about anything else is they are tough to beat for convenience. It is easy to come to rely on GPS with all of its features and convenience, but it is important to remember that like any other electronic device it may fail. While the GPS network itself it very robust, requiring little more than regular corrections from ground based stations, GPS receivers are small relatively fragile devices than may break or run out of power.

The most common use of GPS receivers is for automobile navigation, where devices from companies like Garmin and Tomtom are extremely popular. But these devices can also be used by people on foot, such as for hiking, orienteering, and geocaching. But, being complex electronic devices, their reliability is not as good as a plain old map and compass.

GPS receivers require that the clocks on the satellites be exquisitely well calibrated. The reason is that an error of 5 microseconds in the clock synchronization will lead to a position error of one mile. Achieving this accuracy requires that the clocks compensate for both the effects of special relativity (7 milliseconds per day) and general relativity (45 milliseconds per day in the opposite direction), leading to a total required correction of 38 milliseconds per day.[5]

See also

Further reading

Parkinson; Spilker (1996). The global positioning system. American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. ISBN 978-1-56347-106-3. 

Jaizki Mendizabal; Roc Berenguer; Juan Melendez (2009). GPS and Galileo. McGraw Hill. ISBN 978-0-07-159869-9. 

Nathaniel Bowditch (2002). The American Practical Navigator – Chapter 11 Satellite Navigation. United States government. 

External links