The Global Positioning System (GPS) is an increasingly popular tool, used throughout the world as a source of wayfinding and navigation. However, there is much more to the GPS network than just satellite navigation as the transmissions broadcast by the GPS satellites can also be used as a highly accurate source of time.
GPS satellites are actually just orbiting clocks as each one contains atomic clocks that generate a time signal. It is the time signal that is broadcast by the GPS satellites that satellite navigation receivers in cars and planes use to work out distance and position.
Positioning is only possible because thee time signals are so accurate. Vehicle sat navs for instance use the signals from four orbiting satellites and triangulate the information to work out the position. However, if there is just one second inaccuracy with one of the time signals then the positing information could be thousands of miles out – proving useless.
It is testament to the accuracy of atomic clocks used to generate GPS signals that currently a GPS receiver can work out its position on earth to within five metres.
Because GPS satellites are so accurate, they make an ideal source of time to synchronise a computer network to. Strictly speaking GPS time differs from the international timescale UTC (coordinated Universal Time) as UTC has had additional leap seconds added to it to ensure parity with the earth’s rotation meaning it is exactly 18 seconds ahead of GPS but is easily converted by NTP the time synchronisation protocol (Network Time Protocol).
GPS time servers receive the GPS time signal via a GPS antenna which has to be placed on the roof to receive the line of sight transmissions. Once the GPS signal is received the NTP GPS time server will distribute the signal to all devices on the NTP network and corrects any drift on individual machines.
GPS time servers are dedicated easy to use devices and can ensure millisecond accuracy to UTC without any of the security risks involved in using an internet time source.