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How does GPS work?

There are three parts to a GPS system: a constellation of between 24 and 32 solar-powered satellites orbiting the earth in orbits at an altitude of approximately 20000 kilometers, a master control station and four control and monitoring stations (on Hawaii, Ascension Islands, Diego Garcia and Kawajale) and GPS receivers such as the one in a car.

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Each of the satellites is in an orbit that allows a receiver to detect at least four of the operational satellites. The satellites send out microwave signals to a receiver where the built-in computer uses these signals to work out your precise distance from each of the four satellites and then triangulates your exact position on the planet to the nearest few meters based on these distances.

In fact, signals from just three satellites are needed to carry out this trilateration process; the calculation of your position on earth based on your distance from three satellites. The signal from the fourth satellite is redundant and is used to confirm the results of the initial calculation. If the position calculated from distances to satellites “A-B-C” do not match the calculation based on “A-B-D” then other combinations are tested until a consistent result is obtained.

The process of measuring the distance from satellite to GPS receiver is based on timed signals. For example, at 16h45m precisely, the satellite may begin broadcasting its signal. The GPS receiver will also begin running the same random sequence at 16h45m local time, but does not broadcast the sequence. When the receiver picks up the signal from the different satellites, there will be a time lag, because the microwaves take a fraction of a second to travel from the satellite to the receiver. The time lag is easily converted into distance to each satellite. The slight difference between signals from each satellite is then used to calculate the receiver's position.