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GPS is getting an $8-billion upgrade

Improvements, including the replacement of satellites, aim to make the system more reliable, more widespread and much more accurate.

May 23, 2010|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times
(Viktor Koen, For The Times )

Without it, ATMs would stop spitting out cash, Wall Street could blunder billions of dollars in stock trades and clueless drivers would get lost.

It's GPS, and it's everywhere.

Although most people may associate the Global Positioning System with the navigation devices that are becoming standard equipment on new cars, GPS has become a nerve center for the 21st century rivaling the Internet — enabling cargo companies to track shipments, guiding firefighters to hot spots and even helping people find lost dogs.

"It's a ubiquitous utility that everybody takes for granted now," said Bradford W. Parkinson.

He should know. Three decades ago, as a baby-faced Air Force colonel just out of the Vietnam War, Parkinson led the Pentagon team that developed GPS at a military base in El Segundo.

Now, scientists and engineers — including those at a sprawling satellite-making factory in El Segundo — are developing an $8-billion GPS upgrade that will make the system more reliable, more widespread and much more accurate.

The new system is designed to pinpoint someone's location within an arm's length, compared with a margin of error of 20 feet or more today. With that kind of precision, a GPS-enabled mobile phone could guide you right to the front steps of Starbucks, rather than somewhere on the block.

"This new system has the potential to deliver capabilities we haven't seen yet," said Marco Caceres, senior space analyst for aerospace research firm Teal Group. "Because GPS touches so many industries, it's hard to imagine what industry wouldn't be affected."

The 24 satellites that make up the GPS constellation — many of them built at the former Rockwell plant in Seal Beach — will be replaced one by one. The first replacement was scheduled to be launched from Cape Canaveral this weekend. The overhaul will take a decade and is being overseen by engineers at Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, where Parkinson and his team developed the current system.

"We know that the world relies on GPS," said Col. David B. Goldstein, the chief engineer for the upgrade.

San Diego found out firsthand in 2007, when the Navy accidentally jammed GPS signals in the area, knocking out cellphone service and a hospital's emergency hospital paging system for doctors. New York experienced a similar problem a year later.

The upgrade is designed in part to prevent such outages by increasing the number of signals beamed to Earth from satellites that orbit 12,000 miles above. By triangulating the signals from four satellites, GPS receivers — and there are now more than a billion of them — can pinpoint your location on the ground.

Although "positioning" is an obvious application of the technology, it's also become a crucial timekeeper for the financial industry. Transactions made everywhere, from ATMs to Wall Street stock trades, are time-stamped using precise atomic clocks ticking within the GPS satellites. The clocks are accurate to one-billionth of a second. It's a crucial technology for Wall Street, where a fraction of a second could mean billions of dollars.

Before GPS, explorers and seafarers figured out where they were by looking at the sun and the stars. Even with the advent of gyroscopes and radios, navigation was still imprecise, with an average margin of error of a mile or two.

The Cold War sparked the necessity for something better.

When the Soviet Union launched the world's first orbiting satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, scientists at Johns Hopkins University scrambled to track it. They soon realized they could determine Sputnik's position by monitoring the radio waves it emitted.

That led to a breakthrough concept. If radio waves could be used to track a satellite from Earth, the radio waves from the satellite could also be used to determine the position of an object on the ground.

The Pentagon jumped at the idea. The Navy in particular needed help guiding its submarines that carried nuclear missiles. Because the submarines spent months underwater and only surfaced sporadically, they did not have a precise way of knowing where they were, which diminished the accuracy of the missiles.

In the 1960s, the Pentagon launched more than a dozen satellites under a program called Transit to help the submarines, which were outfitted with an antenna that could receive satellite signals when they surfaced.

But the system was accurate only to within 100 feet — and only when a submarine wasn't moving. The government needed something better.

That's where Parkinson came in. In 1972, the Pentagon tapped him to develop a satellite-based navigation system that had more naysayers than supporters. Parkinson recalled frequent trips to Washington to deflect criticism from politicians and even some Pentagon brass that decried the project as a waste of taxpayers' money.

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