How NASA Uses GPS Technology in Space

December 5, 2017 Published by

In recent weeks, we’ve explored the ways in which the Global Positioning System and its related technologies have been utilized across the globe. All very interesting, to be sure, but very Earth-centric. What say you to getting away from terra firma for a bit and taking this topic to the stars this time around?

That was a rhetorical question. Let’s go for a ride.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, NASA relies on GPS technology as a key backup for a number of important functions in its pursuit of space exploration and aeronautics research. Since the satellites utilized by the system are already in orbit, it’s understandable that the other machinery that we have floating around up there could make good use of its capabilities. While GPS isn’t entirely relied upon for particular functions just yet, it does offer a useful failsafe that helps guarantee accuracy and information transfer should other systems malfunction. To this end, it’s utilized in three notable areas: in the communication of data, in the autonomy of the latter, and in planetside technological improvements. We’ll tackle those one at a time.

  • Keeping the Lines Open
    First: communication. NASA missions that are in orbit can track their position and relay information to Earth (and vice versa) through multiple channels, each used for various parcels of data that vary with the purpose of the assignment and the craft’s distance from the planet. Two-way channels include the Deep Space Network (DSN), the Near Earth Network (NEN), and the Space Network (SN), but satellites can also utilize one-way, onboard methods to process locale details and keep their trajectories on course. This info is pulled from Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) scattered across the Earth’s orbit, and one of these systems is GPS. While most NASA missions rely on the DSN, NEN, and SN, more missions are beginning to use GPS as a backup tool to ensure that figures are accurate.
  • Going at It Alone
    Second: independence. GPS and other GNSS systems can be utilized to allow spacecraft a greater degree of onboard autonomy: something that can be vital should ground communications and its remote tracking and control experience issues. Using one-way signals from the system’s satellites, missions can use GPS information to track real-time three-dimensional positions and timing with up to 95% accuracy in lieu of other sensors.
  • The Benefits Back Home
    Third: better earthbound applications. By updating future generations of GPS satellites with more advanced designs and powerful systems, planet-based tracking and measuring has been increasingly improved to allow pinpoint accuracy, sometimes down to the millimeter. This benefit goes further than simply making your Google Maps route more reliable: it’s a valuable tool for scientists the world over. Better GPS means an increase in performance and precision for teams monitoring and evaluating climate change, sea levels, global temperatures, weather movement, and much more.

Despite the relative simplicity of its use in our day to day, GPS isn’t just a shortcut for “lazy” drivers who are bad with directions; it’s an integral piece of technology that the brightest minds across the globe rely on to make sense of our world and everything that lies beyond it. Who knows where in the universe it may allow us to go in the future?

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