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People often ask me | “What good | is Relativity?”
Real-World Relativity: The GPS Navigation System
People often ask me “What good is Relativity?” It is a commonplace to think of Relativity as an abstract and highly arcane mathematical theory that has no consequences for everyday life. This is in fact far from the truth.
Consider for a moment that when you are riding in a commercial airliner, the pilot and crew are navigating to your destination with the aid of the Global Positioning System (GPS). Further, many luxury cars now come with built-in navigation systems that include GPS receivers with digital maps, and you can purchase hand-held GPS navigation units that will give you your position on the Earth (latitude, longitude, and altitude) to an accuracy of 5 to 10 meters that weigh only a few ounces and cost around $100.
GPS was developed by the United States Department of Defense to provide a satellite-based navigation system for the U.S. military. It was later put under joint DoD and Department of Transportation control to provide for both military and civilian navigation uses.
The current GPS configuration consists of a network of 24 satellites in high orbits around the Earth. Each satellite in the GPS constellation orbits at an altitude of about 20,000 km from the ground, and has an orbital speed of about 14,000 km/hour (the orbital period is roughly 12 hours - contrary to popular belief, GPS satellites are not in geosynchronous or geostationary orbits). The satellite orbits are distributed so that at least 4 satellites are always visible from any point on the Earth at any given instant (with up to 12 visible at one time). Each satellite carries with it an atomic clock that “ticks” with an accuracy of 1 nanosecond (1 billionth of a second). A GPS receiver in an airplane determines its current position and heading by comparing the time signals it receives from a number of the GPS satellites (usually 6 to 12) and trilaterating on the known positions of each satellite. The precision achieved is remarkable: even a simple hand-held GPS receiver can determine your absolute position on the surface of the Earth to within 5 to 10 meters in only a few seconds (with differential techiques that compare two nearby receivers, precisions of order centimeters or millimeters in relative position are often obtained in under an hour or so). A GPS receiver in a car can give accurate readings of position, speed, and heading in real-time!
To achieve this level of precision, the clock ticks from the GPS satellites must be known to an accuracy of 20-30 nanoseconds. However, because the satellites are constantly moving relative to observers on the Earth, effects predicted by the Special and General theories of Relativity must be taken into account to achieve the desired 20-30 nanosecond accuracy.