U.S. Air Force Gives Reassurance About GPS Status

“The GPS will not go down,” said Colonel Dave Buckman of the U.S. Air Force in a Twitter post.  The update was made in attempt to reassure the world that the Global Positioning System will not crash, despite the recent GAO (Government Accountability Office) report which sparked fear that there could be a problem with the GPS service relied on by the United States military and millions of drivers around the world.

What’s Wrong with the GPS?

According to the report, the GPS could be interrupted due to delays in modernizing and deploying the constellation of satellites that enable the service.  The report went on to say that it is uncertain if the U.S. Air Force would be able to obtain new satellites in enough time to maintain the current service without interruption.  If not, many civilian users and critical military operations could be adversely impacted.  As of now, there are 31 active GPS satellites orbiting 12,600 miles above the earth.  At least 24 of these satellites must be operational in order to provide the optimal accuracy needed to calculate the user’s position.

The Future of GPS

The United States government plans to invest more than $5.8 billion in both space and ground-based GPS systems through the year 2013.  The Air Force intends to launch a new satellite in August of 2009 and another early 2010.   However, the GAO is concerned that over the next few years, several of the older satellites in the constellation will come to the end of their operational life much faster than they will be replenished.  Furthermore, the GAO states that if the U.S. Air Force can’t meets its schedule, military operations and users that depend on the GPS service could be impacted by as early as next year.  Although he shares some of the GAO’s concerns, Buckman is confident that the constellation number will not fall below the crucial 24.

Wide Applications of GPS

GPS has wealth of beneficial uses outside of helping motorists find their way from point A to point B via the real-time navigation device attached the dashboard.  Many of the new smartphones released today come equipped with the technology, providing a user with the ability to map their precise location at any given moment.  GPS is widely used in the aviation and maritime industries, communications networks and mass transit systems, as well as electrical power grids.  In addition, the U.S. military utilizes encrypted GPS signals to aid in troop movements, communications, logistics and search and rescue.  The military also uses the technology to direct missiles and smart bombs.

There is no denying the multitude of benefits the GPS offers.  The GAO report says that the decreased performance could have a major impact on various critical operations, including military strikes, fearing that the risks of collateral damage could increase as well.  While the GPS sky isn’t necessarily falling, the news in the GAO report is definitely a cause for concern.  The truth is that delays in scheduled launches and funding are difficult in planning.  Even more unsettling, there is always the possibility that the new satellites could have problems that are not detected until they are launched into orbit.

Photo Credit: Space Today

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