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    GPS Experiments

    GPS Background Information


    The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a U.S. space-based global navigation satellite system. It provides reliable positioning, navigation, and timing services to worldwide users on a continuous basis in all weather, day and night.


    Global Positioning System, also known as GPS, is a system designed to help navigate on the Earth, in the air, and floating on water.

    A GPS receiver displays where it is, how fast it is moving and which direction, how high it is, and maybe how fast it is going up or down. Many GPS receivers contain information about places. GPS units for automobiles contain travel data like road maps, hotels, restaurants, and service stations. GPSs for boats contain nautical charts of harbors, marinas, shallow water, rocks, and waterways. Other GPSs are for aviation, hiking and backpacking, bicycling, or many other activities.

    Most GPS receivers record where they have been, and help plan a journey. While traveling a planned journey, the unit predicts the time to the next destination.

    How it works

    GPS satellites circle the earth in four planes, plus a group over the equator. This example shows the number of satellites visible to a GPS receiver at 45° North in blue. Red satellites are blocked by the Earth.A GPS unit receives radio signals from satellites in space circling the Earth. There are about 30 satellites 20,200 kilometres (12,600 mi) above the Earth. (Each circle is 26,600 kilometres (16,500 mi) radius due to the Earth's radius.) Far from the North Pole and South Pole, a GPS unit can receive signals from 6 to 12 satellites at once. Each satellite contains an atomic clock which is carefully set by NORAD several times per day.

    The radio signals contain the precise time and position of the satellite. The GPS receiver subtracts the current time from the time the signal was sent. The difference is how long ago the signal was sent. The time difference multiplied by the speed of light is the distance to the satellite. GPS unit uses trigonometry to calculate where it is from each satellite's position and distance. Usually there must be at least four satellites to solve the geometric equations.

    A GPS receiver can calculate its position up to several times in one second. A GPS receiver calculates its speed and direction by using its change in position and change in time.

    Many inexpensive consumer receivers are accurate to 20 metres (66 ft) most anywhere on the Earth. Sometimes military and expensive commercial receivers are accurate to 30 centimetres (12 in).


    The system was created by the United States Department of Defense. In the beginning, it was only used by the U.S. military, but in 1983 President Ronald Reagan made an order to allow anyone to use the system.

    Sometimes GPS receivers are part of cell phones, wrist watches, and cars.

    Other systems

    There are other systems that act in the same way. One was put in space by Russia, called GLONASS. Another that is not yet done is Galileo, built by the European Union.

    Topics of Interest

    The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a U.S. space-based global navigation satellite system. It provides reliable positioning, navigation, and timing services to worldwide users on a continuous basis in all weather, day and night, anywhere on or near the Earth which has an unobstructed view of four or more GPS satellites.

    GPS is made up of three segments: Space, Control and User. The Space Segment is composed of 24 to 32 satellites in Medium Earth Orbit and also includes the boosters required to launch them into orbit. The Control Segment is composed of a Master Control Station, an Alternate Master Control Station, and a host of dedicated and shared Ground Antennas and Monitor Stations. The User Segment is composed of hundreds of thousands of U.S. and allied military users of the secure GPS Precise Positioning Service, and tens of millions of civil, commercial and scientific users of the Standard Positioning Service. GPS satellites broadcast signals from space that GPS receivers use to provide three-dimensional location (latitude, longitude, and altitude) plus precise time.

    GPS has become a widely used aid to navigation worldwide, and a useful tool for map-making, land surveying, commerce, scientific uses, tracking and surveillance, and hobbies such as geocaching and waymarking. Also, the precise time reference is used in many applications including the scientific study of earthquakes and as a time synchronization source for cellular network protocols.

    GPS has become a mainstay of transportation systems worldwide, providing navigation for aviation, ground, and maritime operations. Disaster relief and emergency services depend upon GPS for location and timing capabilities in their life-saving missions. The accurate timing that GPS provides facilitates everyday activities such as banking, mobile phone operations, and even the control of power grids. Farmers, surveyors, geologists and countless others perform their work more efficiently, safely, economically, and accurately using the free and open GPS signals.


    The design of GPS is based partly on similar ground-based radio navigation systems, such as LORAN and the Decca Navigator developed in the early 1940s, and used during World War II. In 1956 Friedwardt Winterberg proposed a test of General Relativity using accurate atomic clocks placed in orbit in artificial satellites. To achieve accuracy requirements, GPS uses principles of general relativity to correct the satellites' atomic clocks. Additional inspiration for the GPS came when the Soviet Union launched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik in 1957. A team of U.S. scientists led by Dr. Richard B. Kershner were monitoring Sputnik's radio transmissions. They discovered that, because of the Doppler effect, the frequency of the signal being transmitted by Sputnik was higher as the satellite approached, and lower as it continued away from them. They realized that since they knew their exact location on the globe, they could pinpoint where the satellite was along its orbit by measuring the Doppler distortion (see Transit (satellite)).

    The first satellite navigation system, Transit, used by the United States Navy, was first successfully tested in 1960. It used a constellation of five satellites and could provide a navigational fix approximately once per hour. In 1967, the U.S. Navy developed the Timation satellite which proved the ability to place accurate clocks in space, a technology that GPS relies upon. In the 1970s, the ground-based Omega Navigation System, based on phase comparison of signal transmission from pairs of stations, became the first worldwide radio navigation system. However, limitations of these systems drove the need for a more universal navigation solution with greater accuracy.

    While there were wide needs for accurate navigation in military and civilian sectors, almost none of those were seen as justification for the billions of dollars it would cost in research, development, deployment and operation for a complex constellation of navigation satellites. However during the Cold War arms race, the nuclear threat to the very existence of the United States was the one need that did justify this cost in the view of the US Congress. And this deterrent effect is why GPS was funded. The nuclear triad consisted of the US Navy's Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) along with the US Air Force's strategic bombers and Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Considered vital to the nuclear deterrence posture, accurate determination of the SLBM launch position was a force multiplier. Precise navigation would enable US submarines to get an accurate fix of their positions prior to launching their SLBMs. The US Air Force with two-thirds of the nuclear triad also had requirements for a more accurate and reliable navigation system. The Navy and Air Force were developing their own technologies in parallel to solve what was essentially the same problem. To increase the survivability of ICBMs, there was a proposal to use mobile launch platforms so the need to fix the launch position had similarity to the SLBM situation. In 1960, the Air Force proposed a radio-navigation system called MOSAIC (Mobile System for Accurate ICBM Control) that was essentially a 3-D LORAN. A follow-on study called Project 57 was worked in 1963 and it was "in this study that the GPS concept was born." That same year the concept was pursued as Project 621B, which had "many of the attributes that you now see in GPS" and promised increased accuracy for Air Force bombers as well as ICBMs. Updates from the Navy Transit system were too slow for the high speeds that the Air Force operated at. The Navy Research Laboratory continued advancements with their Timation (Time Navigation) satellites, first launched in 1967, and with the third one in 1974 carrying the first atomic clock put into orbit.

    With these parallel developments out of the 1960s, it was realized that a superior system could be developed by synthesizing the best technologies from 621B, Transit, Timation and SECOR in a multi-service program. Over the Labor Day weekend in 1973, a meeting of about 12 military officers at the Pentagon discussed the creation of a Defense Navigation Satellite System (DNSS). It was at this meeting that "the real synthesis that became GPS was created." Later that year, the DNSS program was named Navstar. With the individual satellites being associated with the name Navstar (as with the predecessors Transit and Timation), a more fully encompassing name was used to identify the constellation of Navstar satellites. This more complete name was Navstar-GPS which was later shortened simply to GPS.

    After Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was shot down in 1983 after straying into the USSR's prohibited airspace, President Ronald Reagan issued a directive making GPS freely available for civilian use, once it was sufficiently developed, as a common good. The first satellite was launched in 1989, and the 24th and last satellite was launched in 1994.

    Initially, the highest quality signal was reserved for military use, and the signal available for civilian use intentionally degraded ("Selective Availability", SA). This changed in 2000, with U.S. President Bill Clinton ordering Selective Availability (SA) turned off at midnight May 1, 2000, improving the precision of civilian GPS from about 1000 feet to about 65 feet.

    Basic concept of GPS

    A GPS receiver calculates its position by precisely timing the signals sent by the GPS satellites high above the Earth. Each satellite continually transmits messages which include:

    • the time the message was transmitted
    • precise orbital information (the ephemeris)
    • the general system health and rough orbits of all GPS satellites (the almanac).

    The receiver utilizes the messages it receives to determine the transit time of each message and computes the distances to each satellite. These distances along with the satellites' locations are used with the possible aid of trilateration to compute the position of the receiver. This position is then displayed, perhaps with a moving map display or latitude and longitude; elevation information may be included. Many GPS units also show derived information such as direction and speed, calculated from position changes.

    Three satellites might seem enough to solve for position, since space has three dimensions and a position on the Earth's surface can be assumed. However, even a very small clock error multiplied by the very large speed of light—the speed at which satellite signals propagate—results in a large positional error. Therefore receivers use four or more satellites to solve for the receiver's location and time. The very accurately computed time is effectively hidden by most GPS applications, which use only the location. A few specialized GPS applications do however use the time; these include time transfer, traffic signal timing, and synchronization of cell phone base stations.

    Although four satellites are required for normal operation, fewer apply in special cases. If one variable is already known, a receiver can determine its position using only three satellites. (For example, a ship or plane may have known elevation.) Some GPS receivers may use additional clues or assumptions (such as reusing the last known altitude, dead reckoning, inertial navigation, or including information from the vehicle computer) to give a degraded position when fewer than four satellites are visible.

    System segmentation

    The current GPS consists of three major segments. These are the space segment (SS), a control segment (CS), and a user segment (US).

    The space segment (SS) is composed of the orbiting GPS satellites, or Space Vehicles (SV) in GPS parlance. The GPS design originally called for 24 SVs, eight each in three circular orbital planes, but this was modified to six planes with four satellites each. The orbital planes are centered on the Earth, not rotating with respect to the distant stars. The six planes have approximately 55° inclination (tilt relative to Earth's equator) and are separated by 60° right ascension of the ascending node (angle along the equator from a reference point to the orbit's intersection). The orbits are arranged so that at least six satellites are always within line of sight from almost everywhere on Earth's surface.

    Orbiting at an altitude of approximately 20,200 kilometers (about 12,550 miles or 10,900 nautical miles; orbital radius of approximately 26,600 km (about 16,500 mi or 14,400 NM)), each SV makes two complete orbits each sidereal day, repeating the same ground track each day. This was very helpful during development, since even with just four satellites, correct alignment means all four are visible from one spot for a few hours each day. For military operations, the ground track repeat can be used to ensure good coverage in combat zones.

    As of March 2008, there are 31 actively broadcasting satellites in the GPS constellation, and two older, retired from active service satellites kept in the constellation as orbital spares. The additional satellites improve the precision of GPS receiver calculations by providing redundant measurements. With the increased number of satellites, the constellation was changed to a nonuniform arrangement. Such an arrangement was shown to improve reliability and availability of the system, relative to a uniform system, when multiple satellites fail. About eight satellites are visible from any point on the ground at any one time.


    The Global Positioning System, while originally a military project, is considered a dual-use technology, meaning it has significant applications for both the military and the civilian industry.


    The military applications of GPS span many purposes:

    • Navigation: GPS allows soldiers to find objectives in the dark or in unfamiliar territory, and to coordinate the movement of troops and supplies. The GPS-receivers that commanders and soldiers use are respectively called the Commanders Digital Assistant and the Soldier Digital Assistant.
    • Target tracking: Various military weapons systems use GPS to track potential ground and air targets before they are flagged as hostile. These weapon systems pass GPS co-ordinates of targets to precision-guided munitions to allow them to engage the targets accurately. Military aircraft, particularly those used in air-to-ground roles use GPS to find targets (for example, gun camera video from AH-1 Cobras in Iraq show GPS co-ordinates that can be looked up in Google Earth).
    • Missile and projectile guidance: GPS allows accurate targeting of various military weapons including ICBMs, cruise missiles and precision-guided munitions. Artillery projectiles with embedded GPS receivers able to withstand accelerations of 12,000g's or about 117,600 meters/second2 have been developed for use in 155 mm howitzers.
    • Search and Rescue: Downed pilots can be located faster if they have a GPS receiver.
    • Reconnaissance and Map Creation: The military use GPS extensively to aid mapping and reconnaissance.
    • The GPS satellites also carry a set of nuclear detonation detectors consisting of an optical sensor (Y-sensor), an X-ray sensor, a dosimeter, and an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) sensor (W-sensor) which form a major portion of the United States Nuclear Detonation Detection System.


    Many civilian applications benefit from GPS signals, using one or more of three basic components of the GPS: absolute location, relative movement, and time transfer.

    The ability to determine the receiver's absolute location allows GPS receivers to perform as a surveying tool or as an aid to navigation. The capacity to determine relative movement enables a receiver to calculate local velocity and orientation, useful in vessels or observations of the Earth. Being able to synchronize clocks to exacting standards enables time transfer, which is critical in large communication and observation systems. An example is CDMA digital cellular. Each base station has a GPS timing receiver to synchronize its spreading codes with other base stations to facilitate inter-cell hand off and support hybrid GPS/CDMA positioning of mobiles for emergency calls and other applications. Finally, GPS enables researchers to explore the Earth environment including the atmosphere, ionosphere and gravity field. GPS survey equipment has revolutionized tectonics by directly measuring the motion of faults in earthquakes.

    The U.S. Government controls the export of some civilian receivers. All GPS receivers capable of functioning above 18 km (60,000 ft) altitude and 515 m/s (1,000 knots) are classified as munitions (weapons) for which U.S. State Department export licenses are required. These parameters are clearly chosen to prevent use of a receiver in a ballistic missile. It would not prevent use in a cruise missile since their altitudes and speeds are similar to those of ordinary aircraft.

    This rule applies even to otherwise purely civilian units that only receive the L1 frequency and the C/A code and cannot correct for SA, etc.

    Disabling operation above these limits exempts the receiver from classification as a munition. Different vendors have interpreted these limitations differently. The rule specifies operation above 18 km and 515 m/s, but some receivers stop operating at 18 km even when stationary. This has caused problems with some amateur radio balloon launches as they regularly reach 100,000 feet (30 km).

    GPS tours are also an example of civilian use. The GPS is used to determine which content to display. For instance, when approaching a monument it would tell you about the monument.

    GPS functionality has now started to move into mobile phones en masse. The first handsets with integrated GPS were launched already in the late 1990’s, and were available for broader consumer availability on networks such as those run by Nextel, Sprint and Verizon in 2002 in response to U.S. FCC mandates for handset positioning in emergency calls. Capabilities for access by third party software developers to these features were slower in coming, with Nextel opening up those APIs upon launch to any developer, Sprint following in 2006, and Verizon soon thereafter.

    GPS Pet Tracking devices use the same network of satellites to pinpoint and transmit information about the whereabouts of a missing pet. These devices are normally attached to the collar of the pet and are to be worn at all times. A GPS pet tracking system will then offer 24/7 tracking of a pet’s location via mobile or Internet updates. GPS Pet Tracking Systems may use either radio waves or cell phones to transmit information and receive signals.


    Two GPS developers received the National Academy of Engineering Charles Stark Draper Prize for 2003:

    • Ivan Getting, emeritus president of The Aerospace Corporation and engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, established the basis for GPS, improving on the World War II land-based radio system called LORAN (Long-range Radio Aid to Navigation).
    • Bradford Parkinson, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University, conceived the present satellite-based system in the early 1960s and developed it in conjunction with the U.S. Air Force. Parkinson served twenty-one years in the Air Force, from 1957 to 1978, and retired with the rank of colonel.

    One GPS developer, Roger L. Easton, received the National Medal of Technology on February 13, 2006 at the White House.

    On February 10, 1993, the National Aeronautic Association selected the Global Positioning System Team as winners of the 1992 Robert J. Collier Trophy, the most prestigious aviation award in the United States. This team consists of researchers from the Naval Research Laboratory, the U.S. Air Force, the Aerospace Corporation, Rockwell International Corporation, and IBM Federal Systems Company. The citation accompanying the presentation of the trophy honors the GPS Team "for the most significant development for safe and efficient navigation and surveillance of air and spacecraft since the introduction of radio navigation 50 years ago."

    Source: Wikipedia (All text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License and Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.)

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