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How a GPS Works

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a satellite-based navigation system made up of a network of 24 satellites placed into orbit by the U.S. Department of Defense. GPS was originally intended for military applications, but in the 1980’s the government made the system available for civilian use. GPS works in any weather conditions, anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day. There are no subscription fees or setup charges to use GPS.

How It Works

GPS satellites circle the earth twice a day in a very precise orbit and transmit signal information to earth. GPS receivers take this information and use triangulation to calculate the users exact location. Essentially, the GPS receiver compares the time a signal was transmitted by a satellite with the time it was received. The time difference tells the GPS receiver how far away the satellite is. Now, with distance measurements from a few more satellites, the receiver can determine the users position and display it on the unit’s electronic map.

How Accurate is GPS?

Today’s GPS receivers are extremely accurate thanks to their parallel multi-channel design. Certain atmospheric factors and other sources of error can affect the accuracy of. GPS receivers are accurate to within 15 meters on average. Newer GPS receivers with WAAS (wide area augmentation system) capability can improve accuracy to less than 3 meters on average. No additional equipment or fees are required to take advantage of WAAS. Users can also get better accuracy with Differential GPS (DGPS), which corrects GPS signals to within an average of 3-5 meters. The U.S. Coast Guard operates the most common DGPS correction service. This system consists of a network of towers that receive GPS signals and transmit a corrected signal by beacon transmitters. In order to get the corrected signal, users must have a differential beacon receiver and beacon antenna in addition to their GPS.

The GPS Satellite System

The 24 satellites that make up the GPS space segment are orbiting the earth about 12,000 miles above us. They are constantly moving, making 2 complete orbits in less than 24 hours. These satellites are traveling at speeds of roughly 7,000 miles per hour. GPS satellites are powered by solar energy. They have backup batteries onboard to keep them running in the event of a solar eclipse, when there is no solar power. Small rocket boosters on each satellite keep them flying in the correct path. Here are some other interesting facts about the GPS satellites (also called NAVSTAR, the official U.S. Department of Defense name for GPS):

  • The first GPS satellite was launched in 1978.
  • A full constellation of 24 satellites was achieved in 1994.
  • Each satellite is built to last about 10 years.
  • Replacement satellites are constantly being built and launched.
  • A GPS satellite is about 2,000 lbs. and about 17 ft. across.
  • Transmitter power is only 50 watts or less.