What is GPS?
ystem (GPS) is a satellite-based navigation system made up of a network of more than 24 satellites placed into orbit by the U.S. Department of Defense. GPS was originally intended for military applications, but in the 1980s, the government made the system available for civilian use. GPS works in any weather conditions, anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day. There are no subscription fees or setup charges to use GPS.
How it Works
GPS satellites circle the earth twice a day in a very precise orbit and transmit signal information to earth. GPS receivers take this information and use triangulation to calculate the user's exact location. Essentially, the GPS receiver compares the time a signal was transmitted by a satellite with the time it was received. The time difference tells the GPS receiver how far away the satellite is. Now, with distance measurements from a few more satellites, the receiver can determine the user's position and display it on the unit's electronic map.
The GPS Satellite System
The 24 satellites that make up the GPS space segment are orbiting the earth about 12,000 miles above the earth. They are constantly moving, traveling at speeds of roughly 7,000 miles per hour, making two complete orbits in less than 24 hours.
GPS satellites are powered by solar energy. They have backup batteries onboard to keep them running in the event of a solar eclipse, when there's no solar power. Small rocket boosters on each satellite keep them flying in the correct path.
Here are some af the interesting facts about the GPS satellites (also called NAVSTAR, the official U.S. Department of Defense name for GPS):
- The first GPS satellite was launched in 1978.
- A full constellation of 24 satellites was achieved in 1994.
- Each satellite is built to last about 10 years. Replacements are constantly being built and launched into orbit.
- A GPS satellite weighs approximately 2,000 pounds and is about 17 feet across with the solar panels extended.
- Transmitter power is only 50 watts or less.
Other countries have also launched satellite navigation systems, as follows, and all these satellites plus GPS are called "GNSS" ("GPS" remains the name of U.S. system). GNSS will ultimately comprise about 150 satellites.
- GLONASS - Russia's global navigation system. Fully operational worldwide.
- Galileo - a global system being developed by the European Union and other partner countries, planned to be operational by 2014.
- Beidou - People's Republic of China's regional system, currently limited to Asia and the West Pacific.
- COMPASS - People's Republic of China's global system, planned to be operational by 2020.
- IRNSS - India's regional navigation system, planned to be operational by 2012, covering India and Northern Indian Ocean.
- QZSS - Japanese regional system covering Asia and Oceania.
What is WAAS?
You've heard the term WAAS, seen it on packaging and ads for GPS products, and maybe even know it stands for Wide Area Augmentation System. Okay, so what the heck is it? Basically, it's a system of additional satellites and ground stations that provide GPS signal corrections, giving you even better position accuracy. How much better? Try an average of up to five times better. A WAAS-capable receiver can give you a position accuracy of better than three meters 95 percent of the time. To take advantage of this improvement, your GPS has to be "WAAS-enabled".
What are GPS Applications?
GPS has a variety of applications on land, at sea and in the air. Basically, GPS is usable everywhere except where it's impossible to receive the signal such as inside most buildings, in caves and other subterranean locations, and underwater. The most common airborne applications are for navigation by general aviation and commercial aircraft. At sea, GPS is also typically used for navigation by recreational boaters, commercial fishermen, and professional mariners. Land-based applications are more diverse. The scientific community uses GPS for its precision timing capability and position information.
Surveyors use GPS for an increasing portion of their work. GPS offers cost savings by drastically reducing setup time at the survey site and providing incredible accuracy. Basic survey units, costing thousands of dollars, can offer accuracies down to one meter. More expensive systems are available that can provide accuracies to within a centimeter.
Recreational uses of GPS are almost as varied as the number of recreational sports available. GPS is popular among hikers, hunters, snowmobilers, mountain bikers, and cross-country skiers, just to name a few. Anyone who needs to keep track of where he or she is, to find his or her way to a specified location, or know what direction and how fast he or she is going can utilize the benefits of the global positioning system.
GPS is now commonplace in automobiles as well. Some basic systems are in place and provide emergency roadside assistance at the push of a button (by transmitting your current position to a dispatch center). More sophisticated systems that show your position on a street map are also available. Currently these systems allow a driver to keep track of where he or she is and suggest the best route to follow to reach a designated location.
Many civilian applications use one or more of GPS' three basic components: absolute location, relative movement, and time transfer and answers five questions simultaneously:
- Where am I?
- Where am I going?
- Where are you?
- What's the best way to get there?
- When will I get there?