All hail the GPS Gold Standard’s new golden era

January 10, 2019  - By
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Alan Cameron

Alan Cameron, editor-in-chief

Elsewhere in this (January) issue you’ll find the hard facts — basic, but hard — concerning the inaugural launch of the long-awaited GPS III constellation. On pages 10 and 12, with some seasoned leavening between, on page 11.

This column instead waxes briefly on the phenomenon of time, and humankind’s struggle to dominate it, to subject the fourth dimension to its own will.

For GPS III has been, yes, long awaited, long debated, long victim to multiple delays of many colors and causes, scrutable and inscrutable, of technological challenges and institutional barriers, and of that base determinant, money. The Government Accounting Office has issued its fair and due share of reports pointing alarmed fingers at constellation gaps and fulfillment shortfalls and the trials of OCX, the ground control system without which GPS III satellites may some day, soon or not-soon, be capable of broadcasting powerful new signals from space, yet not able to do so because of lagging accomplishment on Earth.

It’s often said that GPS is a victim of its own success, that older satellites living beyond their forecast lifetimes have allowed the Air Force to economize by not replenishing when unnecessary. There’s wisdom in this, of course.

Were my friend Don Jewell still with us, he would be justifiably proud of the Air Force for launching this new golden era of the gold standard in positioning — yet he would have seethed for years over the continued pushes to the right.

This reminds me a good deal of the drama and occasional comedy in the rise of Galileo, observed from afar. Next month I’ll give a talk at the European Space Agency, provisionally titled “An Outside History of Galileo,” the bemused viewpoint of one who only heard and interpreted the news, but did not participate in its forming.

For such complex endeavors do not happen easily or speedily or exactly as planned by mere mortals. Nor should they. Despite much gnashing of teeth, no one — in the civil sphere at least — has suffered unduly from the longish delays in either satnav system’s modernization. Perhaps a few lives could have been saved in the military, or greater strategic advantage gained, with the new capabilities that III will offer warfighters, had same been available on schedule, say, four to six years ago. But even this is mere conjecture.

There is a rhythm and a flow to life, and we are part of it. You can hurry neither sundown nor sunrise. Things happen in their own due course.

When full GPS III capabilities arrive — I don’t believe 2023 — then it will still be in good time. In its own best time, actually, to be here.

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Alan Cameron is editor-in-chief and publisher of GPS World magazine, where he has worked since 2000. He also writes the monthly GNSS Insights column for the weekly Navigate! e-newsletter.

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