Next-gen GPS ready for testing

The first prototype of a new generation of GPS satellites has arrived for testing at Lockheed Martin in Colorado. It’s designed to increase accuracy, even in unfavorable conditions, as well as expanding the range of satellites available for consumer use.

The satellite will be part of the Block III system, which will increase location accuracy from the current “within 10 feet” to “within three feet.” While that’s more likely to be of use for military receivers, the upgrade will bring consumer benefits.

The signal from the satellites will be more powerful, which means there will be fewer problems getting a fix in places such as forests or even in narrow streets between skyscrapers. The new system will be fully compatible with existing receivers.

Perhaps the biggest change for consumers is that Block III is designed to bring together multiple satellites on a common frequency: not just the current US government network, but also those from European and Russian systems. That should give consumers a combination of greater accuracy and wider coverage, a little like being able to use signals from all the mobile networks.

This prototype won’t be sent into orbit, but will go through a series of tests such as exposure to extreme temperatures and checks to see if the frequency will interfere with existing systems. The first working model is scheduled for a May 2014 launch.

Lockheed Martin has a contract for the prototype and the first two launch models, with an option for two more. Eventually the Pentagon plans to launch 32 satellites for the new system at a total cost of $5.5 billion.

The Huffington Post reveals an interesting use for current GPS systems. The satellites contain atomic clocks, which financial systems refer to so that they can get a reliable and precise time for recording when a particular transaction took place, making sure everyone involved knows who traded what when, and can react accordingly.

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