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  • Jan. 2013
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What Is GPS?

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a navigation and precise-positioning tool. Developed by the Department of Defense in 1973, GPS was originally designed to assist soldiers and military vehicles, planes, and ships in accurately determining their locations world-wide. Today, the uses of GPS have extended to include both the commercial and scientific worlds. Commercially, GPS is used as a navigation and positioning tool in airplanes, boats, cars, and for almost all outdoor recreational activities such as hiking, fishing, and kayaking. In the scientific community, GPS plays an important role in the earth sciences. Meteorologists use it for weather forecasting and global climate studies; and geologists can use it as a highly accurate method of surveying and in earthquake studies to measure tectonic motions during and in between earthquakes.

Three distinct parts make up the Global Positioning System. The first segment of the system consists of 24 satellites, orbiting 20,000 km above the Earth in 12-hour circular orbits. This means that it takes each satellite 12 hours to make a complete circle around the Earth. In order to make sure that they can be detected from anywhere on the Earth's surface, the satellites are divided into six groups of four. Each group is assigned a different path to follow. This creates six orbital planes which completely surround the Earth.

These satellites send radio signals to Earth that contain information about the satellite. Using GPS ground-based receivers, these signals can be detected and used to determine the receivers' positions (latitude, longitude, height.) The radio signals are sent at two different L-band frequencies. L-band refers to a range of frequencies between 390 and 1550 MHz. Within each signal, a coded sequence is sent. By comparing the received sequence with the original sequence, scientists can determine how long it takes for the signal to reach the Earth from the satellite. The signal delay is...