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Air Force Space Command
An illustration of a GPS IIR satellite

Potential of GPS Failure Overblown, Says Air Force, Vendors

May 22, 2009 07:00 AM
by Haley A. Lovett
The GAO report stating that the Air Force may begin losing GPS satellites in 2010 has the Air Force and GPS vendors scrambling to do damage control.

Air Force Twitters About Potential GPS Outage

In response to recent media coverage claiming that the U.S. global positioning system (GPS) might fail in 2010, the Air Force—which is in charge of GPS—held a Twitter conference Wednesday.  

Col. Dave Buckman, Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) lead for Position, Navigation and Timing, took questions from users and answered them in the traditional 140-character limit style of Twitter. Using the handle of @AFSpace, Col. Buckman agreed that there is a potential risk of loss of service quality, “but GPS isn't falling out of the sky—we have plans to mitigate risk and prevent a gap in coverage.”
Buckman explained that AFSPC has plans to launch new satellites in August of this year and in early 2010, and noted that the program has not failed to “exceed performance expectations since 1995.” He encouraged one user to go ahead and buy a new GPS system.

According to a report by PC Magazine, GPS device vendors are singing the same tune. “There's no reason to fear that there will be a significant outage or service interruption,” Ted Gartner of GPS manufacturer Garmin said. Representatives of both Garmin and competitor TomTom explained that many vital services, such as first responders and package delivery, depend on the GPS system, and that the government would not let it fail.

Background: GAO report shows Air Force behind schedule with GPS satellites

This month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on the current state of GPS. In the report, the GAO notes that the Air Force has struggled to meet timelines and budgets in recent attempts to build newer satellites in the IIF satellite program, which is currently three years behind schedule. The GAO stated that it is not altogether likely that the Air Force will meet its estimated times of completion and launching the next round of GPS satellites, the IIIA satellites. According to the report, a delay in the IIIA satellites would eventually mean a weakening of the entire GPS system, as older satellites would begin to fail and there would be no new satellites to replace them.

According to PhysOrg, there are 31 GPS satellites orbiting Earth at present; at least 24 of those satellites are needed to locate a GPS user’s position.

An article in the Register points out what a failure of the GPS system could mean: cell phone location pinpointing might not work, geotagging functions could fail, car navigation systems could face troubles or not work at all. Systems failure would be particularly devastating for perhaps the most important function of the GPS system, aiding the U.S. armed forces in navigation and in tracking ground forces.

Related Topics: Solar flares disrupt satellites and satellite space junk

One potential danger to the life of a GPS satellite or indeed, any satellite, is the occurrence of a severe solar flare. In the past, solar weather has knocked out cell phone satellites and other devices. Some experts fear that the U.S. is especially vulnerable to extreme solar weather, because of our dependence on our electrical system.

In March of this year, astronauts aboard a spacecraft had a close call with a piece of space debris and were forced to evacuate their craft. Measuring less than one inch, the debris was a piece of an old spacecraft motor. As more satellites age or stop functioning, more “space junk” accumulates in orbit around Earth. These bits of space junk, traveling at very high speeds, pose a threat to space shuttles and satellites even when the objects are quite small, as a collision could rip a hole in the working satellite or ship with devastating results. Recent close calls with space junk have only heightened the debate about what to do about the ever-growing problem. It is thought that only about 6 percent of the approximately 12,000 satellites in orbit are actually working.

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