The Global Positioning System (GPS), originally Navstar GPS, is a satellite-based radionavigation system owned by the United States government and operated by the United States Space Force. It is one of the global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) that provides geolocation and time information to a GPS receiver anywhere on or near the Earth where there is an unobstructed line of sight to four or more GPS satellites. Obstacles such as mountains and buildings can block the relatively weak GPS signals.
The GPS does not require the user to transmit any data, and it operates independently of any telephonic or Internet reception, though these technologies can enhance the usefulness of the GPS positioning information. The GPS provides critical positioning capabilities to military, civil, and commercial users around the world. The United States government created the system, maintains and controls it, and makes it freely accessible to anyone with a GPS receiver.
The GPS project was started by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1973. The first prototype spacecraft was launched in 1978 and the full constellation of 24 satellites became operational in 1993. Originally limited to use by the United States military, civilian use was allowed from the 1980s following an executive order from President Ronald Reagan after the Korean Air Lines Flight 007 incident. Advances in technology and new demands on the existing system have now led to efforts to modernize the GPS and implement the next generation of GPS Block IIIA satellites and Next Generation Operational Control System (OCX). Announcements from Vice President Al Gore and the Clinton Administration in 1998 initiated these changes, which were authorized by the U.S. Congress in 2000.
During the 1990s, GPS quality was degraded by the United States government in a program called “Selective Availability”; this was discontinued on May 1, 2000, by a law signed by President Bill Clinton.
The GPS service is controlled by the United States government, which can selectively deny access to the system, as happened to the Indian military in 1999 during the Kargil War, or degrade the service at any time. As a result, several countries have developed or are in the process of setting up other global or regional satellite navigation systems. The Russian Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) was developed contemporaneously with GPS, but suffered from incomplete coverage of the globe until the mid-2000s. GLONASS can be added to GPS devices, making more satellites available and enabling positions to be fixed more quickly and accurately, to within two meters (6.6 ft). China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System began global services in 2018, and finished its full deployment in 2020. There are also the European Union Galileo navigation satellite system, and India’s NavIC. Japan’s Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS) is a GPS satellite-based augmentation system to enhance GPS’s accuracy in Asia-Oceania, with satellite navigation independent of GPS scheduled for 2023.
When selective availability was lifted in 2000, GPS had about a five-meter (16 ft) accuracy. GPS receivers that use the L5 band can have much higher accuracy, pinpointing to within 30 centimeters (11.8 in), while high-end users (typically engineering and land surveying applications) are able to have accuracy on several of the bandwidth signals to within two centimeters, and even sub-millimeter accuracy for long-term measurements. As of May 2021, 16 GPS satellites are broadcasting L5 signals, and the signals are considered pre-operational, scheduled to reach 24 satellites by approximately 2027.
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