The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a worldwide radio-navigation system formed from a constellation of 24 satellites and their ground stations. GPS uses these "man-made stars" as reference points to calculate positions accurate to a matter of meters. In fact, with advanced forms of GPS you can make measurements to better than a centimeter!
In a sense it's like giving every square meter on the planet a unique address. GPS receivers have been miniaturized to just a few integrated circuits and so are becoming very economical. And that makes the technology accessible to virtually everyone. These days GPS is finding its way into cars, boats, planes, construction equipment, movie making gear, farm machinery, even laptop computers. Soon GPS will become almost as basic as the telephone. Indeed, at Trimble, we think it just may become a universal utility.
The timing problem is tricky. First, the times are going to be awfully short. If a satellite were right overhead the travel time would be something like 0.06 seconds. So we're going to need some really precise clocks. We'll talk about those soon. But assuming we have precise clocks, how do we measure travel time? To explain it let's use a goofy analogy:
Suppose there was a way to get both the satellite and the receiver to start playing "The Star Spangled Banner" at precisely 12 noon. If sound could reach us from space (which, of course, is ridiculous) then standing at the receiver we'd hear two versions of the Star Spangled Banner, one from our receiver and one from the satellite. These two versions would be out of sync. The version coming from the satellite would be a little delayed because it had to travel more than 11,000 miles. If we wanted to see just how delayed the satellite's version was, we could start delaying the receiver's version until they fell into perfect sync.
The amount we have to shift back the receiver's version is equal to the travel time of the satellite's version. So we just multiply that time times the speed of light and BINGO! we've got our distance to the satellite. That's basically how GPS works. Only instead of the Star Spangled Banner the satellites and receivers use something called a "Pseudo Random Code" - which is probably easier to sing than the Star Spangled Banner.