What the Global Positioning System Tells Us about Relativity

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Scientific Paper
Title What the Global Positioning System Tells Us about Relativity
Author(s) Tom Van Flandern
Keywords Global positioning system, relativity, satellites, orbits, Earth, rotation
Published 1997
Journal None
Pages 81-90


The Global Positioning System (GPS) consists of a network of 24 satellites in roughly 12-hour orbits, each carrying atomic clocks on board. The orbital radius of the satellites is about four Earth-radii (26,600 km). The orbits are nearly circular, with a typical eccentricity of less than 1%. Orbital inclination to the Earth's equator is typically 55 degrees. The satellites have orbital speeds of about 3.9 km/s in a frame centered on the Earth and not rotating with respect to the distant stars. Nominally, the satellites occupy one of six equally spaced orbital planes. Four of them occupy each plane, spread at roughly 90-degree intervals around the Earth in that plane. The precise orbital periods of the satellites are close to 11 hours and 58 minutes so that the ground tracks of the satellites repeat day after day, because the Earth makes one rotation with respect to the stars about every 23 hours and 56 minutes. (Four extra minutes are required for a point on the Earth to return to a position directly under the Sun because the Sun advances about one degree per day with respect to the stars.)