Global Positioning System (GPS) Operation and Implementation

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The GPS (Global Positioning System) network has been around for over thirty years but it was only since 1983 when a Korean airliner was accidentally shot down did the US military, who own and control the system, agree to open it up for civilian use in the hope of preventing such tragedies.

The GPS system is currently the world’s only global navigational satellite system (GNSS) although Europe and China are currently developing their own (Galileo and GLONASS). GPS, or to give it its official name Navstar GPS is based on a constellation of between 24 and 32 Medium Earth Orbit satellites.

These satellites transmit messages via precise microwave signals. These messages contain the time the message was sent, a precise orbit for the satellite sending the message and the general system health and rough orbits of all GPS satellites.

To work out a position a GPS receiver is required. This receives the signal from 4 (or more) satellites. Because the satellites broadcast their position and the time the message was sent, the GPS receiver can use the timing signal and distance information to workout by process of triangulation exactly where it is in the world.

GPS and other GNSS systems can only pinpoint the location so accurately because each relays timing information from an onboard atomic clock. Atomic clocks are so accurate that they either lose or gain a second in millions of years. It is only this accuracy that makes GPS positioning possible because as the signal transmitted by the satellites travel at the speed of light (up to 180,000 miles an second) a one second inaccuracy could make place positioning thousands of miles in the wrong place.

Because of this onboard atomic clock and high level of timing accuracy, a GPS satellite can be used as a source for UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). UTC is a global timescale based on the time told by atomic clocks and used across the globe to allow computer networks to all synchronize to the same time.

Computer networks use NTP time servers (network time protocol) to synchronise their systems. An  NTP server connected to a GPS antenna can receive a UTC time signal from the satellite and then distribute amongst the network.

Utilizing the GPs for timing information is one of the most accurate and secure methods of receiving a UTC source with accuracies of a few milliseconds quite feasibly possible.


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