Introduction to GPS

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a satellite-based navigation system that was developed by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) in the early 1970s. Initially, GPS was developed as a military system to fulfill U.S. military needs.

However, it was later made available to civilians, and is now a dual-use system that can be accessed by bothmilitary and civilian users. GPS provides continuous positioning and timing information, anywhere in the world under any weather conditions.

Because it serves an unlimited number of users as well as being used for security reasons, GPS is a one-way-ranging (passive) system. That is, users can only receive the satellite signals.

GPS consists, nominally, of a constellation of 24 operational satellites. This constellation, known as the initial operational capability (IOC), was completed in July 1993. The official IOC announcement, however, was made on December 8, 1993.

To ensure continuous worldwide coverage, GPS satellites are arranged so that four satellites are placed in each of six orbital planes. With this constellation geometry, four to ten GPS satellites will be visible anywhere in the world, if an elevation angle of 10° is considered.

As discussed later, only four satellites are needed to provide the positioning, or location, information. GPS satellite orbits are nearly circular (an elliptical shape with a maximum eccentricity is about 0.01), with an inclination of about 55° to the equator.

The semimajor axis of a GPS orbit is about 26,560 km (i.e., the satellite altitude of about 20,200 km above the Earth's surface). The corresponding GPS orbital period is about 12 sidereal hours (~11 hours, 58 minutes).

The GPS system was officially declared to have achieved full operational capability (FOC) on July 17, 1995, ensuring the availability of at least 24 operational, nonexperimental,GPS satellites. In fact, since GPS achieved its FOC, the number of satellites in the GPS constellation has always been more than 24 operational satellites.

GPS consists of three segments:

  • space
  • control, and
  • user

The space segment consists of the 24-satellite constellation introduced in the previous section. Each GPS satellite transmits a signal, which has a number of components: two sine waves (also known as carrier frequencies), two digital codes, and a navigationmessage.

The codes and the navigationmessage are added to the carriers as binary biphase modulations. The carriers and the codes are used mainly to determine the distance from the user's receiver to the GPS satellites.

The navigation message contains, along with other information, the coordinates (the location) of the satellites as a function of time. The transmitted signals are controlled by highly accurate atomic clocks onboard the satellites.

The control segment of the GPS system consists of a worldwide network of tracking stations, with a master control station (MCS) located in the United States at Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The primary task of the operational control segment is tracking the GPS satellites in order to determine and predict satellite locations, system integrity, behavior of the satellite atomic clocks, atmospheric data, the satellite almanac, and other considerations.

This information is then packed and uploaded into the GPS satellites through the S-band link. The user segment includes all military and civilian users. With a GPS receiver connected to a GPS antenna, a user can receive the GPS signals, which can be used to determine his or her position anywhere in the world. GPS is currently available to all users worldwide at no direct charge.