Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Your New GPS System Could Soon Be Useless

A recently released Government Accountability Office (GAO) report indicates that a number of the 30 satellites currently operated by the U.S. Air Forces may soon begin to fail resulting in a significant drop in "the overall GPS constellation". According to the report should these satellites fail the results would mean that the number of satellites in use would fall below the number required to provide the level of GPS service that the U.S. government commits to.

GPS operates via a network of satellites positioned in orbit around the globe. Many of these satellites are nearly 20 years old and are dated and aging and may begin to fail in the near future. The system is fault-tolerant in that it can still operate with one or more satellites out of action, but in such a case performance would suffer, with users encountering blackspots or receiving less accurate positioning data.

In an attempt at staving off complications the U.S. government is expected to invest almost $6 billion into new GPS satellite technology over the next four years. This attempt at getting back on schedule comes after several years of suffering "significant" technical issues. If the Air Force is unable to get back on track, however, the GAO warns there could be wide-ranging ramifications for all GPS users.

"It is uncertain whether the Air Force will be able to acquire new satellites in time to maintain current GPS service without interruption," said the report, presented to Congress. "If not, some military operations and some civilian users could be adversely affected."

Should the number of satellites in use drop significantly enough the system could be shut down entirely! However even the briefest of interruptions in service might cause major headaches. The current GPS system is not only utilized by the US government but is also used by air traffic controls, farmers, trains and just about every major transportation system in the world.

Should you really be concerned?

I'll admit the news does sound a bit alarmist and extremely dire, but its really not that bad. We are talking some worst case scenarios here, The fact is that we really only need somewhere around 24 satellites in good working order to have assured accuracy, and there are currently 31 operational in the current network. The odds of seven or more failing before replacements get into orbit is rather low.

The satellites are aging yes and they may be reaching the end of their expected lifespans, but that doesn't mean they will fail as military equipment often lasts much longer than its expected lifespan. The problem is that we are dealing with a tough set of economic times, and we all know how well that government machine runs. If the current delays are any indication then we could see some effects as soon as next year and possibly see major drops as soon as 2014.

**Update 5/22**

The Air Force has responded to the GAO's report downplaying the affect the lose of GPS satellites might have on the military's readiness.

Air Force officials acknowledge that a series of launch delays or on-orbit failures could cause problems for civilian users, but said the military would only be affected minimally, even if the system fell to fewer than 24 satellites. Operators could buy extra time with the remaining satellites by shutting down nonessential systems to save power, extending the satellites’ life.

“We would still have GPS capability, and … we would manage the constellation to optimize performance … to support war-fighting activity, so we probably wouldn’t see much of a difference,” said Col. Dave Madden, commander of the GPS wing at Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif. “The bottom line is we have high confidence [in our] plans to sustain and modernize the constellation,” he said.

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