Lost in Space: GPS System May Soon Begin Deteriorating

By Rachel Cernansky | May 21, 2009 8:17 pm

sat.jpgThe U.S. government has announced increasing concern over the quality of its Global Positioning System (GPS), which could begin to deteriorate as early as next year, resulting in regular blackouts and failures – or even dishing out inaccurate directions to millions of people worldwide [The Guardian]. The possibility that new satellites would not be launched in time was announced in late April, but the warning was stepped up this week in a government statement that recognized cost over-runs of defence department space programmes [Nature] as part of the problem.

The functioning of GPS relies on a network of satellites that constantly orbit the planet and beam signals back to the ground that help pinpoint your position on the Earth’s surface [The Guardian]. GPS service cannot maintain its level of precision if old satellites wear out before new satellites are launched as replacements, and the ability of the system to provide full coverage could dip below 95% between 2010 and 2014, when the Air Force plans to begin replacing the current block of satellites with a newer generation [Nature], warned the report by the Government Accountability Office.

The satellites currently in orbit have been maintained by the U.S. Air Force since the early 1990s, and according to the report, the potential failures are due to mismanagement and a lack of investment. “It’s not that people will suddenly not be able to use the system, but if you start to lose satellites then maybe the performance starts to degrade slightly” [Nature] said Marek Ziebart, a space geodesist (a scientist who measures the Earth and its gravitational field). The most likely failures would occur in the atomic clocks and reaction control wheels in the satellites, which are equipped with back-up parts, but time has already taken its toll on all but the last atomic clock on 18 US GPS navigation satellites, according to a recent unclassified US Air Force report [Nature]. If the failures do occur, the report warned, “some military operations and some civilian users could be adversely affected” [The Guardian].

There are 31 functional GPS satellites in orbit now, with only 24 needed to provide full coverage, but “the more the better…. To measure sea levels reliably you want lots of satellites and you want them working well” [Nature], said Ziebart. Air Force Colonel Dave Buckman admitted “that there’s a potential risk, but GPS isn’t falling out of the sky — we have plans to mitigate risk and prevent a gap in coverage” [Nature].

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Image: NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
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  • George

    Live Science (07 January 2009) about 2012, Solar Storm and NASA – A new study from the National Academy of Sciences outlines grim possibilities on Earth for a worst-case scenario solar storm… the next peak in solar activity is expected to come around 2012… The report was commissioned and funded by NASA. Experts from around the world in industry, government and academia participated.
    Damage to power grids and other communications systems could be catastrophic, the scientists conclude, with effects leading to a potential loss of governmental control of the situation… When the sun is in the active phase of its 11-year cycle, it can unleash powerful magnetic storms that disable satellites, threaten astronaut safety, and even disrupt communication systems on Earth:

  • chris

    Obviously your comment has nothing to do with the above article.

    Probably just some link to malware.

    As far as the above article, when I was in the army somebody told me a joke about how the air force vs the army use their budgets.

    Army: Uses its budget for maintenance, train troups, and do military actions.

    Air Force: Uses its budget for maintenance and training troups. Whenever asked to do military actions they say they need more money.

    That’s the joke atleast don’t know the truth of it.

  • Brian Knoblauch

    That’ll be an issue since, from what I’ve read, the whole next generation air traffic control is planned to be totally dependent on GPS. ADF is already being decommissioned, and Loran (basically a ground based system that works like GPS) has now been slated for decommissioning. Rumors have it that VOR based navigation is also up in the air. I hope not, since that would be all that we have left if there was a GPS issue (well, not totally true, private pilots like myself can fly by sectional chart, but the airlines would be grounded since they require instrument flight)!

  • http://business-ideas.com.ar/corrections.htm Ser Sam

    I wonder if the free-for-all GPS service is not the cause of this deficit. Are they planning to charge for it anytime soon?

  • p

    @ ser sam Maybe they haven’t thought of that yet….mwahahahahaha

  • Landshark

    Uh, anyone order a pizza? spare me the “whoops we forgot to stay on top of it” line. Its just a money grab so they can build a death star. Now open the door, I’m hungry.

  • Larry Esser

    RNAV (Area Navigation) uses VORs to create waypoints for air navigation. Even if next-gen ATC system to use GPS, willing to bet it could easily adapt to other systems. In fact, it would be foolish to have it otherwise. This is why VOR system has been kept this long as a GPS backup. So doubt there will be any “grounding” of commercial aviation. The corporate aircraft I fly are perfectly able to be flown without GPS or INS (navigation system using laser gyros, accelerometer, and internal navigation computer) if these systems fail. An older twin I used to fly had an excellent RNAV box, it was always the backup when the GPS would go offline now and then because of an antenna connector problem we later found.

  • Brian

    Unimpressive. Let’s face facts, they can launch cookie cutter GPS satellites by the dozen. You don’t need a “new generation” of satellites (not that I’m against progress, but if their program is bunged up, you prioritize). You don’t need the space shuttle. You don’t need ion powered engines. You don’t need anything fancy that hasn’t existed since, well, the 1960’s.

    The GPS system is one of the best things the military has done for the world, in civilian life. The system won’t be allowed to languish.

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    Oh..not thats a bad news..but i hope govt will handle it…soon..we cant loose this technology

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