GPS Satellites Explained

Location, Speed, Direction, Altitude

What is GPS?

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is currently the only fully functional Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS). More than two dozen GPS satellites are in medium Earth orbit, transmitting signals allowing GPS receivers to determine the receiver’s location, speed and direction.

Since the first experimental satellite was launched in 1978, GPS has become not only an indispensable aid to navigation around the world, but an important tool for map-making and land surveying as well. GPS also provides a precise time reference used in many applications including scientific study of earthquakes and synchronization of telecommunications networks.

Developed by the United States Department of Defense, it was officially named NAVSTAR GPS (NAVigation Satellite Timing and Ranging Global Positioning System). The United States Air Force 50th Space Wing manages the satellite constellation. The cost of maintaining the system is approximately US$750 million per year, which includes the replacement of aging satellites and research and development. Despite this fact, GPS is free for civilian use as a public good.

How GPS Works

A GPS receiver calculates its position by measuring the distance between itself and three or more GPS satellites. Since the signal travels at a known speed, measuring the time delay between transmission and reception of each GPS radio signal gives the distance to each satellite.

The signals also carry information about the satellites’ location. By determining the position of and distance to at least three satellites, the receiver can compute its position using trilateration. Receivers typically do not have perfectly accurate clocks and therefore track one or more additional satellites to correct the receiver’s clock error.

The Truth About GPS: How it Works

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