Since its implementation in the 1960s, satellite navigation has proven to be a critical asset to both military and civil operations, providing users with accurate and real-time location data. Even standard consumers benefit daily from satellite navigation technology in the form of GPS on their phones. Although the GPS is the most widely used satellite-based navigation system available, there are several other variants used by particular countries around the globe that provide a similar level of functionality. In this blog, we will discuss the history and operating principles behind satellite navigation while also explaining the several systems currently in use.
During the space race and Cold War period, it became apparent to both Western and Eastern Bloc nations that an accurate navigation system involving satellites could be a tremendous operational advantage. In the 1960s, the U.S. military launched the NAVSAT system, which used the Doppler effect to calculate a frequency shift created by the change in position of a satellite after being exposed to a radio signal. The receiver would use this information to infer location when paired with the knowledge of the satellite in space. This system was employed by the U.S. Navy to help ballistic missile submarines maintain situational awareness across the globe.
After the success of satellite navigation systems in the military domain, they quickly began to find use in other non-military industries. For example, most automotive vehicles since the early 2000s have been equipped with satellite navigation capabilities, either through a pre-installed receiver or through the addition of an aftermarket unit. Additionally, civilian aircraft and ships use satellite navigation daily to provide the operator with critical directional information. Such programs have advanced the capabilities of these vehicles to navigate during times of inclement weather. Finally, individuals participating in activities such as hiking, cycling, and climbing also rely heavily upon satellite navigation units in order to maintain safety.
There are currently six satellite navigation systems in use around the world. Four of these may be labeled as global navigation systems, while the other two serve only regional needs.
Launched in 1978, the Global Positioning System (GPS) is a worldwide satellite-based navigation system operated by the United States Space Force. Although its original use was limited to the military scope of operations, it has been an integral component of civilian navigation applications since the 1980s. In order for the GPS to maintain its remarkable accuracy, a receiver must be within the spectrum of 4 satellites at any time. This translates to a constant need for 24 operational satellites to be maintained at all times. Currently, the GPS has 29 operational satellites, with over 40 others in retirement. Since the system is owned and operated by the United States military, it may be restricted to individual and governmental entities if deemed a threat to national security.
Initially launched by the Soviet Union in 1982, GLONASS acts as a Russian-controlled alternative to the GPS, featuring similar coverage and accuracy. As the Cold War came to an end, many satellite navigation device manufacturers became open to providing Russia with the necessary infrastructure to make their system operationally effective. Today, GLONASS is operated by 26 satellites and provides global coverage to military and civilian users of various countries. In order to improve interoperability for search-and-rescue and other civilian emergency applications, the United States and Russian Federation agreed to cooperate on a global positioning system. However, this agreement has been on hold since 2014.
The BeiDou Navigation Satellite System is another GPS alternative operated by the People's Republic of China. When first launched in the early 2000s, BeiDou was very limited in its coverage and accuracy, only serving the People's Republic of China and some neighboring countries. Over the years, China has launched several satellites to add to the BeiDou infrastructure, allowing it to operate with global capacity today.
Galileo is a satellite-based navigation system operated by the European Union available to public users. With unprecedented public access to 1m accuracy, Galileo has become a popular choice for individuals across the globe. Although the Galileo system was developed with close coordination with the United States since its early development, there has been significant tension between the two partners over the accuracy that Galileo offers any entity. The concern was that a United States adversary would use the high-precision nature of Galileo in order to facilitate targeted strikes in combat.
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