Global Positioning System

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is the only fully functional Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS). The GPS uses a constellation of between 24 and 32 Medium Earth Orbit satellites that transmit precise microwave signals, that enable GPS receivers to determine their location, speed, direction, and time. GPS was developed by the United States Department of Defense. Its official name is NAVSTAR-GPS. Although NAVSTAR-GPS is not an acronym, a few backronyms have been created for it. The GPS satellite constellation is managed by the United States Air Force 50th Space Wing.

Similar satellite navigation systems include the Russian GLONASS (incomplete as of 2008), the upcoming European Galileo positioning system, the proposed COMPASS navigation system of China, and IRNSS of India.

Following the shooting down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in 1983, President Ronald Reagan issued a directive making the system available free for civilian use as a common good.Since then, GPS has become a widely used aid to navigation worldwide, and a useful tool for map-making, land surveying, commerce, scientific uses, and hobbies such as geocaching. GPS also provides a precise time reference used in many applications including scientific study of earthquakes, and synchronization of telecommunications networks.

Method of operation

A GPS receiver calculates its position by carefully timing the signals sent by the constellation of GPS satellites high above the Earth. Each satellite continually transmits messages containing the time the message was sent, a precise orbit for the satellite sending the message (the ephemeris), and the general system health and rough orbits of all GPS satellites (the almanac). These signals travel at the speed of light through outer space, and slightly slower through the atmosphere. The receiver uses the arrival time of each message to measure the distance to each satellite, from which it determines the position of the receiver using geometry and trigonometry.The resulting coordinates are converted to more user-friendly forms such as latitude and longitude, or location on a map, then displayed to the user.

It might seem that three satellites would be enough to solve for a position, since space has three dimensions. However, a three satellite solution requires the time be known to a nanosecond or so, far better than any non-laboratory clock can provide. Using four or more satellites allows the receiver to solve for time as well as geographical position, eliminating the need for a super accurate clock. In other words, the receiver uses four measurements to solve for four variables: x, y, z, and t. While many GPS applications have no particular use for the computed time, it is used in some GPS applications such as time transfer.

Although four satellites are required for normal operation, fewer may be needed in some special cases. If one variable is already known (for example, a sea-going ship knows its altitude is 0), a receiver can determine its position using only three satellites. Also, in practice, receivers use additional clues (doppler shift of satellite signals, last known position, dead reckoning, inertial navigation, and so on) to give degraded answers when fewer than four satellites are visible.

Technical description

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).

Space segment

The space segment (SS) comprises 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 degree inclination (tilt relative to Earth’s equator) and are separated by 60 degree 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 (12,600 miles or 10,900 nautical miles; orbital radius of 26,600 km (16,500 mi or 14,400 NM), each SV makes two complete orbits each sidereal day. The ground track of each satellite therefore repeats each (sidereal) 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. 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.

Control segment

The flight paths of the satellites are tracked by US Air Force monitoring stations in Hawaii, Kwajalein, Ascension Island, Diego Garcia, and Colorado Springs, Colorado, along with monitor stations operated by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). The tracking information is sent to the Air Force Space Command’s master control station at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, which is operated by the 2nd Space Operations Squadron (2 SOPS) of the United States Air Force (USAF). Then 2 SOPS contacts each GPS satellite regularly with a navigational update (using the ground antennas at Ascension Island, Diego Garcia, Kwajalein, and Colorado Springs). These updates synchronize the atomic clocks on board the satellites to within a few nanoseconds of each other, and adjust the ephemeris of each satellite’s internal orbital model. The updates are created by a Kalman filter which uses inputs from the ground monitoring stations, space weather information, and various other inputs.

Satellite maneuvers are not precise by GPS standards. So to change the orbit of a satellite, the satellite must be marked ‘unhealthy’, so receivers will not use it in their calculation. Then the maneuver can be carried out, and the resulting orbit tracked from the ground. Then the new ephemeris is uploaded and the satellite marked healthy again.

User segment

GPS receivers come in a variety of formats, from devices integrated into cars, phones, and watches, to dedicated devices such as those shown here from manufacturers Trimble, Garmin and Leica (left to right).

The user’s GPS receiver is the user segment (US) of the GPS. In general, GPS receivers are composed of an antenna, tuned to the frequencies transmitted by the satellites, receiver-processors, and a highly-stable clock (often a crystal oscillator). They may also include a display for providing location and speed information to the user. A receiver is often described by its number of channels: this signifies how many satellites it can monitor simultaneously. Originally limited to four or five, this has progressively increased over the years so that, as of 2007, receivers typically have between 12 and 20 channels.

GPS receivers may include an input for differential corrections, using the RTCM SC-104 format. This is typically in the form of a RS-232 port at 4,800 bit/s speed. Data is actually sent at a much lower rate, which limits the accuracy of the signal sent using RTCM. Receivers with internal DGPS receivers can outperform those using external RTCM data. As of 2006, even low-cost units commonly include Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) receivers.

Many GPS receivers can relay position data to a PC or other device using the NMEA 0183 protocol, or the newer and less widely used NMEA 2000.Although these protocols are officially defined by the NMEA, references to the these protocols have been compiled from public records, allowing open source tools like gpsd to read the protocol without violating intellectual property laws. Other proprietary protocols exist as well, such as the SiRF and MTK protocols. Receivers can interface with other devices using methods including a serial connection, USB or Bluetooth.

Navigation signals

Each GPS satellite continuously broadcasts a Navigation Message at 50 bit/s giving the time-of-week, GPS week number and satellite health information (all transmitted in the first part of the message), an ephemeris (transmitted in the second part of the message) and an almanac (later part of the message). The messages are sent in frames, each taking 30 seconds to transmit 1500 bits.

The first 6 seconds of every frame contains data describing the satellite clock and its relationship to GPS time. The next 12 seconds contain the ephemeris data, giving the satellite’s own precise orbit. The ephemeris is updated every 2 hours and is generally valid for 4 hours, with provisions for updates every 6 hours or longer in non-nominal conditions. The time needed to acquire the ephemeris is becoming a significant element of the delay to first position fix, because, as the hardware becomes more capable, the time to lock onto the satellite signals shrinks, but the ephemeris data requires 30 seconds (worst case) before it is received, due to the low data transmission rate.

The almanac consists of coarse orbit and status information for each satellite in the constellation, an ionospheric model, and information to relate GPS derived time to Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). A new part of the almanac is received for the last 12 seconds in each 30 second frame. Each frame contains 1/25th of the almanac, so 12.5 minutes are required to receive the entire almanac from a single satellite. The almanac serves several purposes. The first is to assist in the acquisition of satellites at power-up by allowing the receiver to generate a list of visible satellites based on stored position and time, while an ephemeris from each satellite is needed to compute position fixes using that satellite. In older hardware, lack of an almanac in a new receiver would cause long delays before providing a valid position, because the search for each satellite was a slow process. Advances in hardware have made the acquisition process much faster, so not having an almanac is no longer an issue. The second purpose is for relating time derived from the GPS (called GPS time) to the international time standard of UTC. Finally, the almanac allows a single frequency receiver to correct for ionospheric error by using a global ionospheric model. The corrections are not as accurate as augmentation systems like WAAS or dual frequency receivers. However it is often better than no correction since ionospheric error is the largest error source for a single frequency GPS receiver. An important thing to note about navigation data is that each satellite transmits only its own ephemeris, but transmits an almanac for all satellites.

Each satellite transmits its navigation message with at least two distinct spread spectrum codes: the Coarse / Acquisition (C/A) code, which is freely available to the public, and the Precise (P) code, which is usually encrypted and reserved for military applications. The C/A code is a 1,023 chip pseudo-random (PRN) code at 1.023 million chips per second so that it repeats every millisecond.Each satellite has its own C/A code so that it can be uniquely identified and received separately from the other satellites transmitting on the same frequency. The P-code is a 10.23 megachip per second PRN code that repeats only every week. When the “anti-spoofing” mode is on, as it is in normal operation, the P code is encrypted by the Y-code to produce the P(Y) code, which can only be decrypted by units with a valid decryption key. Both the C/A and P(Y) codes impart the precise time-of-day to the user.

GPS Frequencies

L1 (1575.42 MHz): Mix of Navigation Message, coarse-acquisition (C/A) code and encrypted precision P(Y) code, plus the new L1C on future Block III satellites.
L2 (1227.60 MHz): P(Y) code, plus the new L2C code on the Block IIR-M and newer satellites.
L3 (1381.05 MHz): Used by the Nuclear Detonation (NUDET) Detection System Payload (NDS) to signal detection of nuclear detonations and other high-energy infrared events. Used to enforce nuclear test ban treaties.
L4 (1379.913 MHz): Being studied for additional ionospheric correction.
L5 (1176.45 MHz): Proposed for use as a civilian safety-of-life (SoL) signal (see GPS modernization). This frequency falls into an internationally protected range for aeronautical navigation, promising little or no interference under all circumstances. The first Block IIF satellite that would provide this signal is set to be launched in 2009.


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 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.hese 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 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 Electro-Magnetic 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.

To help prevent civilian GPS guidance from being used in an enemy’s military or improvised weaponry, the US Government controls the export of civilian receivers. A US-based manufacturer cannot generally export a GPS receiver unless the receiver contains limits restricting it from functioning when it is simultaneously (1) at an altitude above 18 kilometers (60,000 ft) and (2) traveling at over 515 m/s (1,000 knots). These parameters are well above the operating characteristics of the typical cruise missile, but would be characteristic of the reentry vehicle from a ballistic missile.

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 US 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 those APIs up upon launch to any developer, Sprint following in 2006, and Verizon soon thereafter.


The basic idea to build up a navigation system using satellites already existed before World War II. In May 11, 1939 the later mentally ill German aerospace scientist Karl Hans Janke announced in Berlin a patent for a “Position indicator concerning to aircrafts” which had been issued on November 11, 1943. In the patent, he assumed two distant bodies (satellites) which are permanently sending electromagnetic signals. Those signals can be received and be shown on a screen as a vector. By laying a map on that screen it would be even possible to determine origin and direction of an object. Karl Hans Janke was confined in GDR because of “delusional inventing“ and passed away in 1988 in Psychiatry Hubertusburg.

The design of GPS is based partly on the similar ground-based radio navigation systems, such as LORAN and the Decca Navigator developed in the early 1940s, and used during World War II. Additional inspiration for the GPS came when the Soviet Union launched the first 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.

The first satellite navigation system, Transit, used by the United States Navy, was first successfully tested in 1960. Using a constellation of five satellites, it 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 the GPS relies upon. In the 1970s, the ground-based Omega Navigation System, based on signal phase comparison, became the first world-wide radio navigation system.

The first experimental Block-I GPS satellite was launched in February 1978. The GPS satellites were initially manufactured by Rockwell International (now part of Boeing) and are now manufactured by Lockheed Martin (IIR/IIR-M) and Boeing (IIF).

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