Orbital Satellites and Their Use of GPS


Global Positioning System, or GPS, has evolved from a simple navigation system into a sophisticated tool with numerous applications in various sectors. Originally designed to provide navigation information to the military and civilians, GPS has expanded to become an essential element in a multitude of technologies. One intriguing area where GPS is making a significant impact is the operation of orbital satellites. Despite the common misconception that satellites simply “provide” GPS, many satellites, especially those in low Earth orbit, also utilize GPS signals for their functionality.

Understanding GPS in the Context of Satellites

GPS, developed by the U.S. Department of Defense, uses a constellation of at least 24 satellites in Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) to provide real-time information about the precise location of a GPS receiver. This system operates on the principle of triangulation. Once a receiver picks up signals from at least four GPS satellites, it can calculate its position based on the time delay of the received signals.

Utilization of GPS by Orbital Satellites

Orbital satellites use GPS in the following ways:

  • Position Determination: Just as terrestrial GPS receivers use signals from multiple satellites to determine their position, orbital satellites also employ this principle. By receiving signals from multiple GPS satellites, orbital satellites can calculate their precise location in space. This helps in maintaining their predefined orbits and also in making any necessary adjustments.
  • Velocity Determination: Apart from positional data, orbital satellites can also use the Doppler effect on the received GPS signals to determine their velocity. The frequency shift that occurs due to the relative motion between the GPS satellites and the orbital satellite allows the latter to compute its speed and direction. This velocity data is crucial for maneuvers, trajectory planning, and collision avoidance.
  • Time Synchronization: GPS signals are also utilized for highly precise onboard clock synchronization. This is particularly useful for constellations of satellites that require coordinated actions, such as those used for scientific research, global communication networks, and Earth observation systems.

Challenges and Solutions

While GPS offers numerous benefits for orbital satellites, its use also presents some unique challenges. For one, the GPS signal strength decreases as the distance from the GPS satellites increases. This can result in weaker signal reception for satellites in higher orbits.

To counter this issue, many high-orbit satellites, such as those in Geostationary Orbit (GEO), use high-gain antennas to pick up the relatively weak GPS signals. For satellites in highly inclined or polar orbits, the GPS antenna must be capable of receiving signals from the GPS satellites located near the horizon. Furthermore, advanced signal processing techniques and robust software algorithms are employed to make the most out of the available GPS signals.


The use of GPS by orbital satellites is a clear testament to the versatility and importance of GPS technology. Through precise position, velocity determination, and time synchronization, GPS significantly enhances the functionality, effectiveness, and reliability of orbital satellites.