Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Global Positioning System
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Global Positioning System


The Global Positioning System, usually called GPS (the US military refers to it as NAVSTAR), is an intermediate circular orbit (ICO) satellite navigation system; used for determining one's precise location and providing a highly accurate time reference almost anywhere on Earth.

A GPS receiver (GPSR) decodes time signal transmissions from multiple satellites and calculates its position by triangulation. The GPS system was designed by and is controlled by the United States Department of Defense and can be used by anybody for free. The cost of maintaining the system is approximately US$400 million per year, including the replacement of aging satellites. The first of 24 satellites that form the current GPS constellation (Block II) was placed into orbit on February 14, 1989. The 50th GPS satellite since the beginning in 1978 was launched March 21, 2004 aboard a Delta II rocket (see article in External links section, below).

Table of contents
1 Technical description
2 Applications
3 GPS Jamming
4 Awards
5 Other systems
6 See also
7 External links

Technical description

The system consists of a "constellation" of at least 24 satellites in 6 orbital planes. The GPS satellites were manufactured by Rockwell; the first was launched in February, 1978 (Block I), and the final (24th), satellite was launched in 1994. Each satellite circles the Earth twice every day at an altitude of 20,200 kilometers (12,600 miles). The satellites carry atomic clocks and constantly broadcast the precise time according to their own clock, along with administrative information including the orbital elements of their own motion, as determined by a set of ground-based observatories.

The receiver does not need a precise clock, but does need to have a clock with good short-term stability and received signals from four satellites in order to find its own latitude, longitude, elevation, and the precise time. The receiver computes the distance to each of the four satellites by the difference between local time and the time the satellite signals were sent (this distance is called a pseudorange ). It then decodes the satellites' locations from their radio signals and an internal database. The receiver should now be located at the intersection of four spheres, one around each satellite, with a radius equal to the time delay between the satellite and the receiver multiplied by the speed of the radio signals. The receiver does not have a very precise clock and thus cannot know the time delays. However, it can measure with high precision the differences between the times when the various messages were received. This yields 3 hyperboloids of revolution of two sheets, whose intersection point gives the precise location of the receiver. This is why at least four satellites are needed: fewer than 3 satellites yield 2 hyperboloids, whose intersection is a curve; it's impossible to know where the receiver is located along the curve without supplemental information, such as elevation. If elevation information is already known, only signals from three satellites are needed (the point is then defined as the intersection of two hyperboloids and an ellipsoid representing the Earth at this altitude).

When there are n > 4 satellites, the n-1 hyperboloids should, assuming a perfect model and measurements, intersect on a single point. In reality, the surfaces rarely intersect, because of various errors. The question of finding the point P can be reformulated into finding its three coordinates as well as n numbers ri such that for all i, PSi-ri is close to zero, and the various ri-rj are close to Cij where C is the speed of light and Δij are the time differences between signals i and j. For instance, a least squares method may be used to find an optimal solution. In practice, GPS calculations are more complex (repeat measurements etc...).

There are several causes: The initial local time is a guess due to the relatively unprecise clock of the receiver, the radio signals move more slowly as they pass through the ionosphere, and the receiver may be moving. To counteract these variables, the receiver then applies an offset to the local time (and therefore to the spheres' radii) so that the spheres finally do intersect in one point. Once the receiver is roughly localized, most receivers mathematically correct for the ionospheric delay, which is least when the satellite is directly overhead and becomes greater toward the horizon, as more of the ionosphere is traversed by the satellite signal. Since it is common for the receiver to be moving, some receivers attempt to fit the spheres to a directed line segment.

The receiver contains a mathematical model to account for these influences, and the satellites also broadcast some related information which helps the receiver in estimating the correct speed of propagation. High-end receiver/antenna systems make use of both L1 and L2 frequencies to aid in the determination of atmospheric delays. Because certain delay sources, such as the ionosphere, affect the speed of radio waves based on their frequencies, dual frequency receivers can actually measure the effects on the signals.

In order to measure the time delay between satellite and receiver, the satellite sends a repeating 1,023 bit long pseudo random sequence; the receiver knows the seed of the sequence, constructs an identical sequence and shifts it until the two sequences match.

Different satellites use different sequences, which lets them all broadcast on the same frequencies while still allowing receivers to distinguish between satellites. This is an application of Code Division Multiple Access, CDMA.
There are two frequencies in use: 1575.42 MHz (referred to as L1), and 1227.60 MHz (L2). The L1 signal carries a publicly usable coarse-acquisition (C/A) code as well as an encrypted P(Y) code. The L2 signal usually carries only the P(Y) code. The keys required to directly use the P(Y) code are tightly controlled by the U.S. government and are generally provided only for military use.

A minor detail is that the atomic clocks on the satellites are set to "GPS time", which is the number of seconds since midnight, January 5, 1980. It is ahead of UTC because it doesn't follow leap seconds. Receivers thus apply a clock correction factor, (which is periodically transmitted along with the other data), and optionally adjust for a local time zone in order to display the correct time. The clocks on the satellites are also affected by both special, and general relativity, which causes them to run at a slightly slower rate than do clocks on the Earth's surface. This amounts to a discrepancy of around 38 microseconds per day, which is corrected by electronics on each satellite. This offset is a dramatic proof of the theory of relativity in a real-world system, as it is exactly that predicted by the theory, within the limits of accuracy of measurement.

The accuracy of GPS can be improved in a number of ways:


The primary military purpose is to allow improved command and control of forces through an enhanced ability to accurately specify target locations for cruise missiles or troops. The satellites also carry nuclear detonation detectors.

in Kyoto, equipped with GPS navigation'']]

The systems is used by countless civilians as well, who can use the GPS's Standard Positioning Service worldwide free of charge. Low cost GPS receivers (price $100 to $200) are widely available. The system is used as a navigation aid in aeroplanes, ships and cars. The system can be used by computer controlled harvesters, mine trucks and other vehicles. Hand held devices are used by mountain climbers and hikers. Glider pilots use the logged signal to verify their arrival at turnpoints in competitions.

In the past, the civilian signal was degraded, and a more accurate Precise Positioning Service was available only to the United States military, its allies and other, mostly government users. However, on May 1, 2000, US President Bill Clinton; announced that this "Selective Availability" would be turned off, and so now all users enjoy nearly the same level of access, allowing a precision of position determination of less than 20 meters. For military purposes, "Selective Deniability" may still be used to, in effect, jam civilian GPS units in a war zone or global alert while still allowing military units to have full functionality. European concern about this and commercial issues has resulted in the planned GALILEO positioning system. Russia already operates an independent system called GLONASS (global navigation system).

Military (and selected civilian) users still enjoy some technical advantages which can give quicker satellite lock and increased accuracy. The increased accuracy comes mostly from being able to use both the L1 and L2 frequencies and thus better compensate for the varying signal delay in the ionosphere (see above). Commercial GPS receivers are also required to have limits on the velocities and altitudes at which they will report fix coordinates; this is to prevent them from being used to create improvised cruise or ballistic missiles.

Many synchronization systems use GPS as a source of accurate time, hence one of the commonest applications of this use is that of GPS as a reference clock for time code generators or NTP clocks. For instance, when deploying sensors (for seismology or other monitoring application), GPS may be used to provide each recording apparatus with some precise time source, so that the time of events may be recorded accurately.

GPS Jamming

A large part of modern munitions, the so-called "smart bombs" or precision-guided munitions, use GPS. GPS jammers are available, from Russia, and are about the size of a cigarette box. The U.S. government believes that such jammers were used occasionally during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Some officials believe that jammers could be use to attract the precision-guided munitions towards noncombatant infrastructure, other officials believe that the jammers are completely ineffective. In either case, the jammers are attractive targets for anti-radiation missiles.


Two GPS developers have received the National Academy of Engineering Charles Stark Draper prize year 2003:

Other systems

For a list of other systems, see
satellite navigation system.

See also

External links