The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a space-based satellite navigation system that provides location and time information in all weather conditions, anywhere on or near the Earth where there is an unobstructed line of sight to four or more GPS satellites. The system provides critical capabilities to military, civil and commercial users around the world. It is maintained by the United States government and is freely accessible to anyone with a GPS receiver.

The GPS project was developed in 1973 to overcome the limitations of previous navigation systems, integrating ideas from several predecessors, including a number of classified engineering design studies from the 1960s. GPS was created and realized by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and was originally run with 24 satellites. It became fully operational in 1995. Bradford Parkinson, Roger L. Easton, and Ivan A. Getting are credited with inventing it.


Advances in technology and new demands on the existing system have now led to efforts to modernize the GPS system and implement the next generation of GPS III satellites and Next Generation Operational Control System (OCX). Announcements from Vice President Al Gore and the White House in 1998 initiated these changes. In 2000, the U.S. Congress authorized the modernization effort, GPS III.

In addition to GPS, other systems are in use or under development. The Russian Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) was developed contemporaneously with GPS, but suffered from incomplete coverage of the globe until the mid-2000s. There are also the planned European UnionGalileo positioning system, India’s Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System and Chinese Compass navigation system.


The design of GPS is based partly on similar ground-based radio-navigation systems, such as LORAN and the Decca Navigator, developed in the early 1940s and used by the British Royal Navy during World War II.


In 1956, the German-American physicist Friedwardt Winterberg proposed a test of general relativity (for time slowing in a strong gravitational field) using accurate atomic clocks placed in orbit inside artificial satellites. (Later, calculations using general relativity determined that the clocks on GPS satellites would be seen by Earth’s observers to run 38 microseconds faster per day, and this was corrected for in the design of GPS.)

The Soviet Union launched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. Two American physicists, William Guier and George Weiffenbach, at Johns Hopkins’s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), decided to monitor Sputnik’s radio transmissions. Within hours they realized that, because of the Doppler effect, they could pinpoint where the satellite was along its orbit. The Director of the APL gave them access to their UNIVAC to do the heavy calculations required. The next spring, Frank McClure, the deputy director of the APL, asked Guier and Weiffenbach to investigate the inverse problem—pinpointing the user’s location given that of the satellite. (The Navy was developing the submarine-launched Polaris missile, which required them to know the submarine’s location.) This led them and APL to develop the Transit system. In 1959, ARPA (renamed DARPA in 1972) also played a role in Transit.

The first satellite navigation system, Transit, used by the United States Navy, was first successfully tested in 1960. It used a constellation of five satellites and could provide a navigational fix approximately once per hour. In 1967, the U.S. Navy developed the Timation satellite that proved the ability to place accurate clocks in space, a technology required by GPS. In the 1970s, the ground-based Omega Navigation System, based on phase comparison of signal transmission from pairs of stations, became the first worldwide radio navigation system. Limitations of these systems drove the need for a more universal navigation solution with greater accuracy.

While there were wide needs for accurate navigation in military and civilian sectors, almost none of those was seen as justification for the billions of dollars it would cost in research, development, deployment, and operation for a constellation of navigation satellites. During the Cold War arms race, the nuclear threat to the existence of the United States was the one need that did justify this cost in the view of the United States Congress. This deterrent effect is why GPS was funded. It is also the reason for the ultra secrecy at that time. The nuclear triad consisted of the United States Navy’ssubmarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) along with United States Air Force (USAF) strategic bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles(ICBMs). Considered vital to the nuclear-deterrence posture, accurate determination of the SLBM launch position was a force multiplier.

Precise navigation would enable United States submarines to get an accurate fix of their positions before they launched their SLBMs. The USAF, with two thirds of the nuclear triad, also had requirements for a more accurate and reliable navigation system. The Navy and Air Force were developing their own technologies in parallel to solve what was essentially the same problem. To increase the survivability of ICBMs, there was a proposal to use mobile launch platforms (such as Russian SS-24 and SS-25) and so the need to fix the launch position had similarity to the SLBM situation.

In 1960, the Air Force proposed a radio-navigation system called MOSAIC (MObile System for Accurate ICBM Control) that was essentially a 3-D LORAN. A follow-on study, Project 57, was worked in 1963 and it was “in this study that the GPS concept was born”. That same year, the concept was pursued as Project 621B, which had “many of the attributes that you now see in GPS” and promised increased accuracy for Air Force bombers as well as ICBMs. Updates from the Navy Transit system were too slow for the high speeds of Air Force operation. The Naval Research Laboratory continued advancements with their Timation (Time Navigation) satellites, first launched in 1967, and with the third one in 1974 carrying the first atomic clock into orbit.

Another important predecessor to GPS came from a different branch of the United States military. In 1964, the United States Army orbited its first Sequential Collation of Range (SECOR) satellite used for geodetic surveying. The SECOR system included three ground-based transmitters from known locations that would send signals to the satellite transponder in orbit. A fourth ground-based station, at an undetermined position, could then use those signals to fix its location precisely. The last SECOR satellite was launched in 1969. Decades later, during the early years of GPS, civilian surveying became one of the first fields to make use of the new technology, because surveyors could reap benefits of signals from the less-than-complete GPS constellation years before it was declared operational. GPS can be thought of as an evolution of the SECOR system where the ground-based transmitters have been migrated into orbit.


With these parallel developments in the 1960s, it was realized that a superior system could be developed by synthesizing the best technologies from 621B, Transit, Timation, and SECOR in a multi-service program.

During Labor Day weekend in 1973, a meeting of about twelve military officers at the Pentagon discussed the creation of a Defense Navigation Satellite System (DNSS). It was at this meeting that “the real synthesis that became GPS was created.” Later that year, the DNSS program was named Navstar, or Navigation System Using Timing and Ranging. With the individual satellites being associated with the name Navstar (as with the predecessors Transit and Timation), a more fully encompassing name was used to identify the constellation of Navstar satellites, Navstar-GPS, which was later shortened simply to GPS. Ten “Block I” prototype satellites were launched between 1978 and 1985 (with one prototype being destroyed in a launch failure).

After Korean Air Lines Flight 007, a Boeing 747 carrying 269 people, was shot down in 1983 after straying into the USSR’s prohibited airspace, in the vicinity of Sakhalin and Moneron Islands, President Ronald Reagan issued a directive making GPS freely available for civilian use, once it was sufficiently developed, as a common good. The first satellite was launched in 1989, and the 24th satellite was launched in 1994. The GPS program cost at this point, not including the cost of the user equipment, but including the costs of the satellite launches, has been estimated to be about USD$5 billion (then-year dollars). Roger L. Easton is widely credited as the primary inventor of GPS.

Initially, the highest quality signal was reserved for military use, and the signal available for civilian use was intentionally degraded (Selective Availability). This changed with President Bill Clintonordering Selective Availability to be turned off at midnight May 1, 2000, improving the precision of civilian GPS from 100 meters (330 ft) to 20 meters (66 ft). The executive order signed in 1996 to turn off Selective Availability in 2000 was proposed by the U.S. Secretary of Defense, William Perry, because of the widespread growth of differential GPS services to improve civilian accuracy and eliminate the U.S. military advantage. Moreover, the U.S. military was actively developing technologies to deny GPS service to potential adversaries on a regional basis.

Over the last decade, the U.S. has implemented several improvements to the GPS service, including new signals for civil use and increased accuracy and integrity for all users, all while maintaining compatibility with existing GPS equipment.

GPS modernization has now become an ongoing initiative to upgrade the Global Positioning System with new capabilities to meet growing military, civil, and commercial needs. The program is being implemented through a series of satellite acquisitions, including GPS Block III and the Next Generation Operational Control System (OCX). The U.S. Government continues to improve the GPS space and ground segments to increase performance and accuracy.

GPS is owned and operated by the United States Government as a national resource. Department of Defense (DoD) is the steward of GPS. Interagency GPS Executive Board (IGEB) oversaw GPS policy matters from 1996 to 2004. After that the National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing Executive Committee was established by presidential directive in 2004 to advise and coordinate federal departments and agencies on matters concerning the GPS and related systems. The executive committee is chaired jointly by the deputy secretaries of defense and transportation. Its membership includes equivalent-level officials from the departments of state, commerce, and homeland security, the joint chiefs of staff, and NASA. Components of the executive office of the president participate as observers to the executive committee, and the FCC chairman participates as a liaison.

The DoD is required by law to “maintain a Standard Positioning Service (as defined in the federal radio navigation plan and the standard positioning service signal specification) that will be available on a continuous, worldwide basis,” and “develop measures to prevent hostile use of GPS and its augmentations without unduly disrupting or degrading civilian uses.”

Basic concept of GPS

A GPS receiver calculates its position by precisely timing the signals sent by GPS satellites high above the Earth. Each satellite continually transmits messages that include:

  • the time the message was transmitted and,
  • satellite position at time of message transmission.

The receiver uses the messages it receives to determine the transit time of each message and computes the distance to each satellite using the speed of light. Each of these distances and satellites’ locations defines a sphere. The receiver is on the surface of each of these spheres when the distances and the satellites’ locations are correct. These distances and satellites’ locations are used to compute the location of the receiver using the navigation equations. This location is then displayed, perhaps with a moving map display or latitude and longitude; elevation or altitude information may be included, based on height above the geoid (e.g. EGM96).

Basic GPS measurements yield only a position, and neither speed nor direction. However, most GPS units can automatically derive velocity and direction of movement from two or more position measurements. The disadvantage of this principle is that changes in speed or direction can only be computed with a delay, and that derived direction becomes inaccurate when the distance travelled between two position measurements drops below or near the random error of position measurement. GPS units can use measurements of the doppler shift of the signals received to compute velocity accurately. More advanced navigation systems use additional sensors like a compass or an inertial navigation system to complement GPS.

In typical GPS operation, four or more satellites must be visible to obtain an accurate result. Four sphere surfaces typically do not intersect. Because of this, it can be said with confidence that when the navigation equations are solved to find an intersection, this solution gives the position of the receiver along with the difference between the time kept by the receiver’s on-board clock and the true time-of-day, thereby eliminating the need for a very large, expensive, and power hungry clock. The very accurately computed time is used only for display or not at all in many GPS applications, which use only the location. A number of applications for GPS do make use of this cheap and highly accurate timing. These include time transfer, traffic signal timing, andsynchronization of cell phone base stations.

Although four satellites are required for normal operation, fewer apply in special cases. If one variable is already known, a receiver can determine its position using only three satellites. For example, a ship or aircraft may have known elevation. Some GPS receivers may use additional clues or assumptions such as reusing the last known altitude, dead reckoning, inertial navigation, or including information from the vehicle computer, to give a (possibly degraded) position when fewer than four satellites are visible.


The current GPS consists of three major segments. These are the space segment (SS), a control segment (CS), and a user segment (US). The U.S. Air Force develops, maintains, and operates the space and control segments. GPS satellites broadcast signals from space, and each GPS receiver uses these signals to calculate its three-dimensional location (latitude, longitude, and altitude) and the current time.

The space segment is composed of 24 to 32 satellites in medium Earth orbit and also includes the payload adapters to the boosters required to launch them into orbit. The control segment is composed of a master control station, an alternate master control station, and a host of dedicated and shared ground antennas and monitor stations. The user segment is composed of hundreds of thousands of U.S. and allied military users of the secure GPS Precise Positioning Service, and tens of millions of civil, commercial, and scientific users of the Standard Positioning Service (seeGPS navigation devices).


While originally a military project, GPS is considered a dual-use technology, meaning it has significant military and civilian applications.

GPS has become a widely deployed and useful tool for commerce, scientific uses, tracking, and surveillance. GPS’s accurate time facilitates everyday activities such as banking, mobile phone operations, and even the control of power grids by allowing well synchronized hand-off switching.

Information was taken from Wikipedia.