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The “youngest” of the major satellite applications is the field of satellite navigation. This field of measurement and ranging through the use of satellite positioning systems first started in the context of scientific research. This initial use of satellites was simply for positioning and location. These activities, that were first based on using Doppler frequency shifts as a satellite orbited above, were largely scientific and not strategic. These types of activities included geodetics (i.e., such as the measurement of continental drift over time) or the collection of scientific information and data from atmospheric land- or ocean-based sensors where the specific locations of the sensors were important.
The real strides in the development of satellite navigation however came when space systems were developed for the specific purpose of precise targeting of missiles and various other types of weapon systems. The Soviet Union/Russian Federation satellite navigation system, known as GLONASS, and the US-based Navstar system – with its Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) network – developed space-based systems that provided unprecedented capabilities to determine locations on the ground or oceans with great accuracy. Early systems such as Argos that relied on Doppler shift technology were only accurate within a precision of hundreds of meters. Today’s advanced satellite navigation systems, however, are accurate for measurements that can be indicated with a precision only a few meters, and within centimeters if utilizing reference stations.
The fact that GPS and GLONASS satellite signals are freely available in space for all to use has spurred the development of low cost receivers for much more than strategic or military usage. Today, various types of civilian use of navigational and positioning satellites have become popular on a global basis. The latest development in application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) chip technology has fueled the growth of applications based on the use of these precise space-based navigational and positioning systems. The availability of these highly capable but increasingly low cost chips – small enough that they could be included in handsets such as cell phones or included with the electronics available on various types of vehicles (i.e., cars, trucks, buses, trains, airplanes, ships, etc.) represented a real breakthrough. The development of specialized computer chips to perform satellite navigation calculations has increased the number of users of this technology from a relatively small population of several thousands to tens of millions. In the coming decade, the proliferation of international satellite navigation systems in orbit (i.e., US, Russian Federation, China, India, Europe, Japan) plus the continued development of ever lower cost of satellite navigation chips for receivers will continue the popular expansion of these increasingly “easy to use” and versatile systems.
Wide and easy access to low cost consumer receivers for satellite navigation services strongly suggests that this trend of expanded use will continue to surge. Thus, within a decade, use of these devices will increase to the hundreds of millions if not billions of people. Atomic clocks with incredible temporal precision today allow satellite navigation systems to be used by military organization, governmental geospatial scientists, and scientists to determine locations with great accuracy. But these applications are now just a small fraction of total usage. The deployment of the new international satellite navigational systems and smaller and lower cost ground receivers, will support an ever-increasing civilian consumer market for an ever-expanding range of everyday applications. These consumer applications include driving a vehicle to a desired location, safely sailing a boat, going mountain climbing or hiking without getting lost, or simply finding out where you are within a city.
The precise time keeping ability of today’s satellite navigation systems also means that these spacecraft can also serve as a global timekeeper for computers and scientific experiments. The time stamp from a satellite navigation satellite can also be used not only for scientific or regulatory purposes but for other applications such as security and banking systems as well. These satellites are also used to support the synchronization needs of communications satellites. In short, navigation and positioning satellites have also become in many ways the world’s timekeeper. 1
The official US discontinuation of the so-called “selective availability” feature for the Navstar satellite system has accelerated the use of the GPS network for highly sensitive applications such as assisting in the takeoff and landing of aircraft. The fact that selective availability could be reactivated has nevertheless been one of the concerns and invoked reasons why other countries have now proceeded to develop and launch their own satellite navigation systems. In short, when nations believe that certain space infrastructure represents a strategic asset, there is a strong motivation to deploy such a system rather than depending on other nations to own and operate such networks.
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OECD, The Space Economy at a Glance 2011 (2012). http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/63/5/48301203.pdf
J. Newman, What the next generation of GPS satellites will mean for you. PC World (March 6, 2012). http://www.pcworld.com/article/246128/what_the_nextgen_gps_satellite_upgrade_means_for_ you.html
Report of the Third United Nations Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, Vienna, 19–30 July 1999 (United Nations Publication, Sales No. E.00.I.3), Chap. I, Resolution 1
- Introduction to Satellite Navigation Systems
Dr. Joseph N. Pelton
Dr. Sergio Camacho-Lara
- Springer New York
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