Satellite Navigation Systems: How Do They Work?

Like so many things in our world, GPS was born out of the fear and contention of the Cold War. The idea for the GPS came after the launch of Sputnik. Fearful of the satellite, the US decided they needed to track it.

The US conducted experiments throughout the 1960s that aimed to develop and perfect satellite-based tracking technology. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that the Department of Defense launched a set of satellites and created the first Satellite Navigation System (SatNav), known to man.

How do these satellite navigation systems work, though? What is our GPS doing when it calculates the most effective route for us? We’ll talk about that in this article.

Satellite Navigation vs GPS

Before going any further, we should discuss the difference between SatNav and GPS. The truth is that there isn’t much of a difference. GPS is a subcategory of SatNav.

All GPS are SatNav systems, but SatNav can describe several systems including GPS. GPS is operated by the US government and is the most common system used there.

The Doppler Effect

To understand how a GPS works, you first have to understand the Doppler Effect. The Doppler Effect is a scientific principle that describes how light or sound waves change as they bounce off of a moving object.

By measuring the differences between waves as they hit a satellite, the computers in the satellites can determine how fast an object is moving.

Calculating Time

Multiple satellites are needed for satellite navigation systems to work properly. Using speed, as determined by the Doppler Effect, the satellites can find the distance between the moving object and its destination.

The satellites also need to have accurate images of the world so that they can determine time based on road locations rather than using a straight line, which may not be feasible.

Accounting for Delays

Satellite navigation does have a few challenges, though, with the biggest being the ionosphere. As waves move through layers of the earth’s atmosphere, the waves get delayed by a small amount.

The good news is that scientists are aware of that and have programmed that delay into the satellites. This ensures that the timing is accurate for the most part.

The Satellites

We’ve been talking about the satellites responsible for the satellite navigation device in your car, but how many satellites make it work? It varies, but the simplest answer is at least 4.

To make sure the system works as designed, governments often use a GNSS simulation. This simulator allows scientists to test their SatNav system in various conditions to check if it functions in most situations.

Satellite Navigation Systems: A Review

Satellite navigation systems are a marvel of modern technology that use satellites to help people reach their destinations as soon as possible. We’ve discussed these systems in this article, but the technical details could fill up whole books. We encourage you to do more research on your own if you’re interested.

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