Global Positioning System
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This article is about the American satellite navigation system. It is not to be confused with similar non-American (global and regional) systems. For similar systems, see Satellite navigation.
"GPS" redirects here. For the device, see Satellite navigation device. For other uses, see GPS (disambiguation).
Global Positioning System (GPS)
NAVSTAR GPS logo.png
Country/ies of origin United States
Operator(s) US Space Force
Type Military, civilian
Accuracy 500–30 cm (20–1 ft)
Total satellites 33
Satellites in orbit 31
First launch February 1978; 42 years ago
Total launches 72
Regime(s) 6x MEO planes
Orbital height 20,180 km (12,540 mi)
Artist's conception of GPS Block II-F satellite in Earth orbit.
Civilian GPS receivers ("GPS navigation device") in a marine application.
Automotive navigation system in a taxicab.
A U.S. Air Force Senior Airman runs through a checklist during Global Positioning System satellite operations.
The Global Positioning System (GPS), originally NAVSTAR GPS, is a satellite-based radionavigation system owned by the United States government and operated by the United States Space Force. It is one of the global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) that provides geolocation and time information to a GPS receiver anywhere on or near the Earth where there is an unobstructed line of sight to four or more GPS satellites. Obstacles such as mountains and buildings block the relatively weak GPS signals.
The GPS does not require the user to transmit any data, and it operates independently of any telephonic or internet reception, though these technologies can enhance the usefulness of the GPS positioning information. The GPS provides critical positioning capabilities to military, civil, and commercial users around the world. The United States government created the system, maintains it, and makes it freely accessible to anyone with a GPS receiver.
The GPS project was started by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1973, with the first prototype spacecraft launched in 1978 and the full constellation of 24 satellites operational in 1993. Originally limited to use by the United States military, civilian use was allowed from the 1980s following an executive order from President Ronald Reagan. Advances in technology and new demands on the existing system have now led to efforts to modernize the GPS and implement the next generation of GPS Block IIIA satellites and Next Generation Operational Control System (OCX). Announcements from Vice President Al Gore and the White House in 1998 initiated these changes. In 2000, the U.S. Congress authorized the modernization effort, GPS III. During the 1990s, GPS quality was degraded by the United States government in a program called "Selective Availability"; this was discontinued in May 2000 by a law signed by President Bill Clinton.
The GPS service is provided by the United States government, which can selectively deny access to the system, as happened to the Indian military in 1999 during the Kargil War, or degrade the service at any time. As a result, several countries have developed or are in the process of setting up other global or regional satellite navigation systems. The Russian Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) was developed contemporaneously with GPS, but suffered from incomplete coverage of the globe until the mid-2000s. GLONASS can be added to GPS devices, making more satellites available and enabling positions to be fixed more quickly and accurately, to within two meters (6.6 ft). China's BeiDou Navigation Satellite System began global services in 2018, and finished its full deployment in 2020. There are also the European Union Galileo positioning system, and India's NavIC. Japan's Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS) is a GPS satellite-based augmentation system to enhance GPS's accuracy in Asia-Oceania, with satellite navigation independent of GPS scheduled for 2023.
When selective availability was lifted in 2000, GPS had about a five-meter (16 ft) accuracy. The latest stage of accuracy enhancement uses the L5 band and is now fully deployed. GPS receivers released in 2018 that use the L5 band can have much higher accuracy, pinpointing to within 30 centimeters or 11.8 inches.
1.3 Timeline and modernization
2 Basic concept of GPS
2.2 More detailed description
2.3 User-satellite geometry
2.4 Receiver in continuous operation
2.5 Non-navigation applications
3.1 Space segment
3.2 Control segment
3.3 User segment
4.1.1 Restrictions on civilian use
4.3.1 Leap seconds
5.1 Message format
5.2 Satellite frequencies
5.3 Demodulation and decoding
6 Navigation equations
6.1 Problem description
6.2 Geometric interpretation
6.2.3 Inscribed sphere
6.2.4 Spherical cones
6.3 Solution methods
6.3.1 Least squares
7 Error sources and analysis
8 Accuracy enhancement and surveying
8.2 Precise monitoring
8.3 Carrier phase tracking (surveying)
9 Regulatory spectrum issues concerning GPS receivers
10 Other systems
11 See also
14 Further reading
15 External links
Crystal Project video camera.png
Air Force film introducing the Navstar Global Positioning System, circa 1977
File:AFSC Film, NAVSTAR GPS-Circa 1977.ogv
The GPS project was launched in the United States in 1973 to overcome the limitations of previous navigation systems, integrating ideas from several predecessors, including classified engineering design studies from the 1960s. The U.S. Department of Defense developed the system, which originally used 24 satellites. It was initially developed for use by the United States military and became fully operational in 1995. Civilian use was allowed from the 1980s. Roger L. Easton of the Naval Research Laboratory, Ivan A. Getting of The Aerospace Corporation, and Bradford Parkinson of the Applied Physics Laboratory are credited with inventing it. The work of Gladys West is credited as instrumental in the development of computational techniques for detecting satellite positions with the precision needed for GPS.
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.
In 1955, Friedwardt Winterberg proposed a test of general relativity – detecting time slowing in a strong gravitational field using accurate atomic clocks placed in orbit inside artificial satellites. Special and general relativity predict that the clocks on the GPS satellites would be seen by the Earth's observers to run 38 microseconds faster per day than the clocks on the Earth. The GPS calculated positions would quickly drift into error, accumulating to 10 kilometers per day (6 mi/d). This was corrected for in the design of GPS.
When the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite (Sputnik 1) in 1957, two American physicists, William Guier and George Weiffenbach, at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) decided to monitor its radio transmissions. Within hours they realized that, because of the Doppler effect, they could pinpoint where the satellite was along its orbit. The Director of the APL gave them access to their UNIVAC to do the heavy calculations required.
Early the next year, Frank McClure, the deputy director of the APL, asked Guier and Weiffenbach to investigate the inverse problem—pinpointing the user's location, given the satellite's. (At the time, the Navy was developing the submarine-launched Polaris missile, which required them to know the submarine's location.) This led them and APL to develop the TRANSIT system. In 1959, ARPA (renamed DARPA in 1972) also played a role in TRANSIT.
TRANSIT 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 feasibility of placing accurate clocks in space, a technology required for GPS.
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. Limitations of these systems drove the need for a more universal navigation solution with greater accuracy.
Although there were wide needs for accurate navigation in military and civilian sectors, almost none of those was seen as justification for the billions of dollars it would cost in research, development, deployment, and operation of a constellation of navigation satellites. During the Cold War arms race, the nuclear threat to the existence of the United States was the one need that did justify this cost in the view of the United States Congress. This deterrent effect is why GPS was funded. It is also the reason for the ultra-secrecy at that time. The nuclear triad consisted of the United States Navy's submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) along with United States Air Force (USAF) 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 United States ballistic missile submarines to get an accurate fix of their positions before they launched their SLBMs. The USAF, 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 (comparable to the Soviet SS-24 and SS-25) and 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, 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 of Air Force operation. The Naval Research Laboratory continued making advances with their Timation (Time Navigation) satellites, first launched in 1967, with the third one in 1974 carrying the first atomic clock into orbit.
Another important predecessor to GPS came from a different branch of the United States military. In 1964, the United States Army orbited its first Sequential Collation of Range (SECOR) satellite used for geodetic surveying. The SECOR system included three ground-based transmitters at known locations that would send signals to the satellite transponder in orbit. A fourth ground-based station, at an undetermined position, could then use those signals to fix its location precisely. The last SECOR satellite was launched in 1969.
With these parallel developments in 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. Satellite orbital position errors, induced by variations in the gravity field and radar refraction among others, had to be resolved. A team led by Harold L Jury of Pan Am Aerospace Division in Florida from 1970–1973, used real-time data assimilation and recursive estimation to do so, reducing systematic and residual errors to a manageable level to permit accurate navigation.
During Labor Day weekend in 1973, a meeting of about twelve 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. Navstar is often erroneously considered an acronym for "NAVigation System Using Timing and Ranging" but was never considered as such by the GPS Joint Program Office (TRW may have once advocated for a different navigational system that used that acronym). 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, Navstar-GPS. Ten "Block I" prototype satellites were launched between 1978 and 1985 (an additional unit was destroyed in a launch failure).
The effect of the ionosphere on radio transmission was investigated in a geophysics laboratory of Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory. Located at Hanscom Air Force Base, outside Boston, the lab was renamed the Air Force Geophysical Research Lab (AFGRL) in 1974. AFGRL developed the Klobuchar model for computing ionospheric corrections to GPS location. Of note is work done by Australian space scientist Elizabeth Essex-Cohen at AFGRL in 1974. She was concerned with the curving of the paths of radio waves traversing the ionosphere from NavSTAR satellites.
After Korean Air Lines Flight 007, a Boeing 747 carrying 269 people, was shot down in 1983 after straying into the USSR's prohibited airspace, in the vicinity of Sakhalin and Moneron Islands, President Ronald Reagan issued a directive making GPS freely available for civilian use, once it was sufficiently developed, as a common good. The first Block II satellite was launched on February 14, 1989, and the 24th satellite was launched in 1994. The GPS program cost at this point, not including the cost of the user equipment but including the costs of the satellite launches, has been estimated at US$5 billion (then-year dollars).
Initially, the highest-quality signal was reserved for military use, and the signal available for civilian use was intentionally degraded, in a policy known as Selective Availability. This changed with President Bill Clinton signing on May 1, 2000 a policy directive to turn off Selective Availability to provide the same accuracy to civilians that was afforded to the military. The directive was proposed by the U.S. Secretary of Defense, William Perry, in view of the widespread growth of differential GPS services by private industry to improve civilian accuracy. Moreover, the U.S. military was actively developing technologies to deny GPS service to potential adversaries on a regional basis.
Since its deployment, the U.S. has implemented several improvements to the GPS service, including new signals for civil use and increased accuracy and integrity for all users, all the while maintaining compatibility with existing GPS equipment. Modernization of the satellite system has been an ongoing initiative by the U.S. Department of Defense through a series of satellite acquisitions to meet the growing needs of the military, civilians, and the commercial market.
As of early 2015, high-quality, FAA grade, Standard Positioning Service (SPS) GPS receivers provided horizontal accuracy of better than 3.5 meters (11 ft), although many factors such as receiver quality and atmospheric issues can affect this accuracy.
GPS is owned and operated by the United States government as a national resource. The Department of Defense is the steward of GPS. The Interagency GPS Executive Board (IGEB) oversaw GPS policy matters from 1996 to 2004. After that, the National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing Executive Committee was established by presidential directive in 2004 to advise and coordinate federal departments and agencies on matters concerning the GPS and related systems. The executive committee is chaired jointly by the Deputy Secretaries of Defense and Transportation. Its membership includes equivalent-level officials from the Departments of State, Commerce, and Homeland Security, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and NASA. Components of the executive office of the president participate as observers to the executive committee, and the FCC chairman participates as a liaison.
The U.S. Department of Defense is required by law to "maintain a Standard Positioning Service (as defined in the federal radio navigation plan and the standard positioning service signal specification) that will be available on a continuous, worldwide basis," and "develop measures to prevent hostile use of GPS and its augmentations without unduly disrupting or degrading civilian uses."
Timeline and modernization
Summary of satellites
period Satellite launches Currently in orbit
ure In prep-
I 1978–1985 10 1 0 0 0
II 1989–1990 9 0 0 0 0
IIA 1990–1997 19 0 0 0 0
IIR 1997–2004 12 1 0 0 12
IIR-M 2005–2009 8 0 0 0 7
IIF 2010–2016 12 0 0 0 12
IIIA From 2018 3 0 5 2 3
IIIF — 0 0 0 22 0
Total 73 2 5 24 34
(Last update: July 12, 2020)
8 satellites from Block IIA are placed in reserve
USA-203 from Block IIR-M is unhealthy
 For a more complete list, see list of GPS satellite launches
In 1972, the USAF Central Inertial Guidance Test Facility (Holloman AFB) conducted developmental flight tests of four prototype GPS receivers in a Y configuration over White Sands Missile Range, using ground-based pseudo-satellites.
In 1978, the first experimental Block-I GPS satellite was launched.
In 1983, after Soviet interceptor aircraft shot down the civilian airliner KAL 007 that strayed into prohibited airspace because of navigational errors, killing all 269 people on board, U.S. President Ronald Reagan announced that GPS would be made available for civilian uses once it was completed, although it had been previously published [in Navigation magazine], and that the CA code (Coarse/Acquisition code) would be available to civilian users.
By 1985, ten more experimental Block-I satellites had been launched to validate the concept.
Beginning in 1988, command and control of these satellites was moved from Onizuka AFS, California to the 2nd Satellite Control Squadron (2SCS) located at Falcon Air Force Station in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
On February 14, 1989, the first modern Block-II satellite was launched.
The Gulf War from 1990 to 1991 was the first conflict in which the military widely used GPS.
In 1991, a project to create a miniature GPS receiver successfully ended, replacing the previous 16 kg (35 lb) military receivers with a 1.25 kg (2.8 lb) handheld receiver.
In 1992, the 2nd Space Wing, which originally managed the system, was inactivated and replaced by the 50th Space Wing.
Emblem of the 50th Space Wing
By December 1993, GPS achieved initial operational capability (IOC), with a full constellation (24 satellites) available and providing the Standard Positioning Service (SPS).
Full Operational Capability (FOC) was declared by Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) in April 1995, signifying full availability of the military's secure Precise Positioning Service (PPS).
In 1996, recognizing the importance of GPS to civilian users as well as military users, U.S. President Bill Clinton issued a policy directive declaring GPS a dual-use system and establishing an Interagency GPS Executive Board to manage it as a national asset.
In 1998, United States Vice President Al Gore announced plans to upgrade GPS with two new civilian signals for enhanced user accuracy and reliability, particularly with respect to aviation safety, and in 2000 the United States Congress authorized the effort, referring to it as GPS III.
On May 2, 2000 "Selective Availability" was discontinued as a result of the 1996 executive order, allowing civilian users to receive a non-degraded signal globally.
In 2004, the United States government signed an agreement with the European Community establishing cooperation related to GPS and Europe's Galileo system.
In 2004, United States President George W. Bush updated the national policy and replaced the executive board with the National Executive Committee for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing.
November 2004, Qualcomm announced successful tests of assisted GPS for mobile phones.
In 2005, the first modernized GPS satellite was launched and began transmitting a second civilian signal (L2C) for enhanced user performance.
On September 14, 2007, the aging mainframe-based Ground Segment Control System was transferred to the new Architecture Evolution Plan.
On May 19, 2009, the United States Government Accountability Office issued a report warning that some GPS satellites could fail as soon as 2010.
On May 21, 2009, the Air Force Space Command allayed fears of GPS failure, saying "There's only a small risk we will not continue to exceed our performance standard."
On January 11, 2010, an update of ground control systems caused a software incompatibility with 8,000 to 10,000 military receivers manufactured by a division of Trimble Navigation Limited of Sunnyvale, Calif.
On February 25, 2010, the U.S. Air Force awarded the contract to develop the GPS Next Generation Operational Control System (OCX) to improve accuracy and availability of GPS navigation signals, and serve as a critical part of GPS modernization.
Air Force Space Commander presents Dr. Gladys West with an award as she is inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame for her GPS work on Dec. 6, 2018.
Air Force Space Commander presents Gladys West with an award as she is inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame for her GPS work on Dec. 6, 2018.
On February 10, 1993, the National Aeronautic Association selected the GPS Team as winners of the 1992 Robert J. Collier Trophy, the US's most prestigious aviation award. This team combines researchers from the Naval Research Laboratory, the USAF, the Aerospace Corporation, Rockwell International Corporation, and IBM Federal Systems Company. The citation honors them "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."
Two GPS developers received the National Academy of Engineering Charles Stark Draper Prize for 2003:
Ivan Getting, emeritus president of The Aerospace Corporation and an 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.
GPS developer Roger L. Easton received the National Medal of Technology on February 13, 2006.
Francis X. Kane (Col. USAF, ret.) was inducted into the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame at Lackland A.F.B., San Antonio, Texas, March 2, 2010 for his role in space technology development and the engineering design concept of GPS conducted as part of Project 621B.
In 1998, GPS technology was inducted into the Space Foundation Space Technology Hall of Fame.
On October 4, 2011, the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) awarded the Global Positioning System (GPS) its 60th Anniversary Award, nominated by IAF member, the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). The IAF Honors and Awards Committee recognized the uniqueness of the GPS program and the exemplary role it has played in building international collaboration for the benefit of humanity.
Gladys West was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame in 2018 for recognition of her computational work which led to breakthroughs for GPS technology.
On February 12, 2019, four founding members of the project were awarded the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering with the chair of the awarding board stating "Engineering is the foundation of civilisation; there is no other foundation; it makes things happen. And that's exactly what today's Laureates have done - they've made things happen. They've re-written, in a major way, the infrastructure of our world." more » « less