We are all used to Satellite Navigation by now. More and more people are installing those little black boxes into their cars and throwing away their old paper road maps. The advantages of satellite navigation are many fold – from constant updates keeping the maps current to being able to pin point your location miles from any landmarks or road signs but GPS has more uses than merely triangulating a position for direction finding, it can be utilized to provide time and frequency information worldwide.
Since the early 1990’s the Global Positioning system (GPS) has been the worlds’ only fully functioning Global Navigational Satellite System (GNSS). Run by the American military, GPS (sometimes referred to as NAVSTAR) has allowed accurate timing and location finding all over the world.
To accurately pinpoint a location, all GNSS systems require an absolute time source, that is a time source as accurate as humanely possible such as that from an atomic clock. Without knowing exactly what the time is a GNSS satellite would not be able to accurately pin point a location (as the Earth, satellites and people are all moving about a location can only be defined by a position and time). Because of the distance of the satellites away from the Earth, even an inaccuracy of a second or two could mean a sat nav’s location could be miles out.
For this reason each satellite has a highly accurate atomic clock onboard which can also be used by NTP (Network Time Protocol) servers to synchronise computer networks. GPS is an ideal time and frequency source because it can provide highly accurate time anywhere in the world using relatively cheap components.
A GPS receiver decodes the signal sent from the GPS antenna to a computer readable protocol which can be utilised by most time servers and operating systems including, Windows, LINUX and UNIX.
The GPS receiver also outputs a precise pulse every second that GPS NTP servers and computer time servers may utilise to provide ultra-precise timing. The pulse-per-second timing on most receivers is accurate to within 0.001 of a second of UTC (Coordinated Universal Time or Temps Universel Coordonné).
GPS is ideal in providing NTP time servers or stand-alone computers with a highly accurate external reference for synchronisation. Even with relatively low cost equipment, accuracy of hundred nanoseconds (a nanosecond = a billionth of a second) can be reasonably achieved using GPS as an external reference.
In 2002, the European Space Agency and European Union agreed to build Europe’s own GNSS called Galileo. To compete with the new and more advanced GNSS technologies the GPS programme is currently being upgraded and it is expected that when Galileo begins relaying signals both systems will become interoperable allowing even more accuracy in timing and positioning.