Not too long ago, GPS was just another acronym for something nobody really needed. We had maps and asked for directions when we got lost.
Now even many rental cars come with a GPS computer, and asking for directions has become a thing of the past.
Until, that is, you go the cheap route and get a non-GPS rental. Or a satellite in the GPS system fails.
So what’s the miracle guide that allows us to find the proverbial needle in a haystack?
GPS stands for Global Positioning System. The basic idea is that any point on Earth can be calculated if four or more observation points in space have direct line of sight of that point. Using super-exact atomic clocks and the speed of light as a distance indicator, these signals can be used to determine where you are, where you are going and how to get there.
Like so much really cool technology, GPS was developed primarily for military use where it’s crucial to know whether you are in enemy territory.
The first GPS satellites were launched in 1978, and the first network of 10 satellites was operational by 1985. Shortly thereafter, the GPS system became accessible to civilian users, albeit with a wimpy signal — accuracy was around 100 yards. In 2000, GPS became fully accessible to anyone with a receiver and accuracy improved to within 20 yards. Now, 12 years later, accuracy keeps improving with every new satellite sent into orbit.
The current network is comprised of 24 satellites.
Some of those satellites are getting a bit long in their electronic tooth, and failure is inevitable. So over time, satellites are being replaced with newer models. It’s an ongoing process, and last week’s GPS satellite launch was just one in a long line of replacement spacecraft.
Nowadays it’s hard to fathom not having GPS on your smartphone or that little box on your dashboard telling you to turn left or right.
While GPS has saved many lives — from lost hikers to emergency management and rescue services — it has also led to a decline in knowledge on how to read maps. Gone is the thrill of unfolding another unwieldy gigantic piece of paper, tracking down your goal and wishing for that little red point that declares “You are here.”
One of the first popular uses for GPS was the sport of geocaching, where people would leave little trinkets — usually in old ammunition boxes — somewhere in the wilderness, took a GOS reading and then challenged other GPS fans to find the treasure. Whoever got there first got to keep the gift but had to provide a new one and then hide the box somewhere else for the next person to find, and so on.
GPS has lost its sense of adventure, its taste of an exotic hobby. It’s one of those indispensible gadgets now without which we’d be lost.
Check out the official US Government GPS webpage at www.gps.gov and learn more about the spacecraft and the rockets that put them into orbit. And the next time the friendly — if somewhat disembodied — voice tells you that your destination is just ahead on your right, thank the countless engineers and rocket scientists who made it possible.
Beate Czogalla is the professor of theater design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a solar system ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA for many years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.