Innovation Insights: Falcon Gold analysis redux - GPS World

Innovation Insights: Falcon Gold analysis redux

August 9, 2023  - By

This is an introduction to the August 2023 Innovation article,Far Out: Positioning above the GPS constellation


Innovation Insights with Richard Langley

Innovation Insights with Richard Langley

On October 25, 1997, a defense satellite was launched from Cape Canaveral on an Atlas rocket with a Centaur upper stage. The Centaur went into an elliptical geosynchronous transfer orbit with an apogee close to geostationary orbit radius before releasing the satellite. Bolted to the side of the Centaur was an instrument package containing a GPS digital sensor. This piggyback device was part of an experiment by students at the U.S. Air Force Academy to test some of the concepts of GPS navigation for high-altitude spacecraft.

The sensor captured 40-millisecond samples of GPS L1 signals collected by a patch antenna. The digital samples were downlinked to a ground station in Colorado Springs where they were subsequently processed. The equipment successfully operated from November 3 until at least November 9. During that time, GPS signals were detected across a wide range of altitudes above the GPS constellation including at times when the Falcon Gold antenna was only in view of a GPS satellite’s transmitting antenna sidelobes. The downlinked data was carefully archived. The Falcon Gold experiment was discussed by Thomas Powell of the Aerospace Corporation in an article he wrote for this column in October 1999 entitled “The View from Above: GPS on High-Altitude Spacecraft.”

Fast forward a couple of decades. Researchers at the University of Minnesota are taking a fresh look at the Falcon Gold data using some innovative analysis tools, which may prove beneficial for processing GNSS data from receivers on other satellites flying above the GNSS constellations even all the way to the Moon. In this quarter’s Innovation column, they tell us about their work and its potential benefit.

This Falcon Gold data study is a great example of how archived GNSS data can be reanalyzed with fresh insight and new techniques to milk even more and better results from the data. Another important example is the wealth of data that has been acquired by the International GNSS Service since beginning operations in 1994. The data in the archive is reprocessed from time to time to produce a more consistent long product set for analysis of sources of systematic error and to improve its ultimate accuracy. This results in a better understanding of Earth system dynamics, for example, including plate tectonics. The data from many other GNSS instruments flown in space is also archived allowing look backs for further and more detailed analyses. This includes my GPS Attitude, Positioning, and Profiling (GAP) instrument on the CASSIOPE scientific satellite, now part of ESA’s Swarm constellation. Researchers continue to produce interesting scientific results from the GAP data. So, it’s not always necessary to generate fresh data for a study – useful data may already exist. What’s old can indeed be new again!

About the Author: Richard B. Langley

Richard B. Langley is a professor in the Department of Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) in Fredericton, Canada, where he has been teaching and conducting research since 1981. He has a B.Sc. in applied physics from the University of Waterloo and a Ph.D. in experimental space science from York University, Toronto. He spent two years at MIT as a postdoctoral fellow, researching geodetic applications of lunar laser ranging and VLBI. For work in VLBI, he shared two NASA Group Achievement Awards. Professor Langley has worked extensively with the Global Positioning System. He has been active in the development of GPS error models since the early 1980s and is a co-author of the venerable “Guide to GPS Positioning” and a columnist and contributing editor of GPS World magazine. His research team is currently working on a number of GPS-related projects, including the study of atmospheric effects on wide-area augmentation systems, the adaptation of techniques for spaceborne GPS, and the development of GPS-based systems for machine control and deformation monitoring. Professor Langley is a collaborator in UNB’s Canadian High Arctic Ionospheric Network project and is the principal investigator for the GPS instrument on the Canadian CASSIOPE research satellite now in orbit. Professor Langley is a fellow of The Institute of Navigation (ION), the Royal Institute of Navigation, and the International Association of Geodesy. He shared the ION 2003 Burka Award with Don Kim and received the ION’s Johannes Kepler Award in 2007.