1 Introduction

The Global Positioning System (GPS) can be described in terms of three principal “segments”: a Space Segment, a Control Segment, and a User Segment. The Space Segment consists essentially of 24 satellites carrying atomic clocks. (Spare satellites and spare clocks in satellites exist.) There are four satellites in each of six orbital planes inclined at 55° with respect to earth’s equatorial plane, distributed so that from any point on the earth, four or more satellites are almost always above the local horizon. Tied to the clocks are timing signals that are transmitted from each satellite. These can be thought of as sequences of events in spacetime, characterized by positions and times of transmission. Associated with these events are messages specifying the transmission events’ spacetime coordinates; below I will discuss the system of reference in which these coordinates are given. Additional information contained in the messages includes an almanac for the entire satellite constellation, information about satellite vehicle health, and information from which Universal Coordinated Time as maintained by the U.S. Naval Observatory – UTC(USNO) – can be determined.

The Control Segment is comprised of a number of ground-based monitoring stations, which continually gather information from the satellites. These data are sent to a Master Control Station in Colorado Springs, CO, which analyzes the constellation and projects the satellite ephemerides and clock behaviour forward for the next few hours. This information is then uploaded into the satellites for retransmission to users.

The User Segment consists of all users who, by receiving signals transmitted from the satellites, are able to determine their position, velocity, and the time on their local clocks.

The GPS is a navigation and timing system that is operated by the United States Department of Defense (DoD), and therefore has a number of aspects to it that are classified. Several organizations monitor GPS signals independently and provide services from which satellite ephemerides and clock behavior can be obtained. Accuracies in the neighborhood of 5–10 cm are not unusual. Carrier phase measurements of the transmitted signals are commonly done to better than a millimeter.

GPS signals are received on earth at two carrier frequencies, L1 (154 × 10.23 MHz) and L2 (120 × 10.23 MHz). The L1 carrier is modulated by two types of pseudorandom noise codes, one at 1.023 MHz – called the Coarse/Acquisition or C/A-code – and an encrypted one at 10.23 MHz called the P-code. P-code receivers have access to both L1 and L2 frequencies and can correct for ionospheric delays, whereas civilian users only have access to the C/A-code. There are thus two levels of positioning service available in real time, the Precise Positioning Service utilizing P-code, and the Standard Positioning Service using only C/A-code. The DoD has the capability of dithering the transmitted signal frequencies and other signal characteristics, so that C/A-code users would be limited in positioning accuracy to about ± 100 meters. This is termed Selective Availability, or SA. SA was turned off by order of President Clinton in May 2000.

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Figure 1: Typical Allan deviations of Cesium clocks and quartz oscillators, plotted as a function of averaging time τ.

The technological basis for GPS lies in extremely accurate, stable atomic clocks. Figure 1View Image gives a plot of the Allan deviation for a high-performance Cesium clock, as a function of sample time τ. If an ensemble of clocks is initially synchronized, then when compared to each other after a time τ, the Allan deviation provides a measure of the rms fractional frequency deviation among the clocks due to intrinsic noise processes in the clocks. Frequency offsets and frequency drifts are additional systematic effects which must be accounted for separately. Also on Figure 1View Image is an Allan deviation plot for a Quartz oscillator such as is typically found in a GPS receiver. Quartz oscillators usually have better short-term stability performance characteristics than Cesium clocks, but after 100 seconds or so, Cesium has far better performance. In actual clocks there is a wide range of variation around the nominal values plotted in Figure 1View Image.

The plot for Cesium, however, characterizes the best orbiting clocks in the GPS system. What this means is that after initializing a Cesium clock, and leaving it alone for a day, it should be correct to within about 5 parts in 1014, or 4 nanoseconds. Relativistic effects are huge compared to this.

The purpose of this article is to explain how relativistic effects are accounted for in the GPS. Although clock velocities are small and gravitational fields are weak near the earth, they give rise to significant relativistic effects. These effects include first- and second-order Doppler frequency shifts of clocks due to their relative motion, gravitational frequency shifts, and the Sagnac effect due to earth’s rotation. If such effects are not accounted for properly, unacceptably large errors in GPS navigation and time transfer will result. In the GPS one can find many examples of the application of fundamental relativity principles. These are worth careful study. Also, experimental tests of relativity can be performed with GPS, although generally speaking these are not at a level of precision any better than previously existing tests.

The principles of position determination and time transfer in the GPS can be very simply stated. Let there be four synchronized atomic clocks that transmit sharply defined pulses from the positions rj at times tj, with j = 1,2,3,4 an index labelling the different transmission events. Suppose that these four signals are received at position r at one and the same instant t. Then, from the principle of the constancy of the speed of light,

c2(t − tj)2 = |r − rj|2, j = 1,2,3,4. (1 )
where the defined value of c is exactly 299792458 m s–1. These four equations can be solved for the unknown space-time coordinates {r,t} of the reception event. Hence, the principle of the constancy of c finds application as the fundamental concept on which the GPS is based. Timing errors of one ns will lead to positioning errors of the order of 30 cm. Also, obviously, it is necessary to specify carefully the reference frame in which the transmitter clocks are synchronized, so that Eq. (1View Equation) is valid.

The timing pulses in question can be thought of as places in the transmitted wave trains where there is a particular phase reversal of the circularly polarized electromagnetic signals. At such places the electromagnetic field tensor passes through zero and therefore provides relatively moving observers with sequences of events that they can agree on, at least in principle.

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