Can we use GPS in orbit at the moon? What about on Mars?


GPS is regularly used in low earth orbit.

It is possible to use the signals from the sidelobes of the GPS transmit antennas to receive service in a high earth orbit up to and potentially beyond geosynchronous altitude:

sidelobes (Image credit: GPS World)

However, it is challenging because the signals are substantially weaker and coverage is intermittent. These papers and this presentation discuss the concept.

GPS navigation has been demonstrated from HEO during an extension of the GIOVE-A mission. I haven't been able to find any reports of attempted reception at geosynchronous altitudes.

The moon would be a real stretch (though it has been proposed and simulated), and reception at Mars is completely out of the question. However, it should be noted that navigation of deep space probes including those at Mars is made with similar fundamental techniques to GPS (i.e. autocorrelation of long pseudorandom bit sequences).

  • $\begingroup$ On the Moon, measuring the position of Earth on the sky should be enough for navigation. $\endgroup$ – LocalFluff Oct 8 '14 at 4:28
  • $\begingroup$ @LocalFluff How? Suppose the Earth is at the horizon. That puts you somewhere in the great circle we perceive as the edge of the moon. How would you know where on this Great Circle you are, without a magnetic field to aid in the determination of the direction of the Earth? $\endgroup$ – gerrit Oct 8 '14 at 18:52
  • $\begingroup$ @gerrit The Earth won't look exactly the same from different positions on that great circle. The accuracy of the technique will be terrible, though. Good luck guiding to the crater your habitat is in, let alone the airlock. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Oct 8 '14 at 19:52
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    $\begingroup$ @gerrit by the orientation of Earth's equator. For precision, three radio beacons, or visible mirrors, in GEO would help. $\endgroup$ – LocalFluff Oct 9 '14 at 6:24
  • $\begingroup$ This just in: NASA Goddard Team Sets High Flying Record with Use of GPS $\endgroup$ – TildalWave Apr 23 '15 at 0:44

While I can't fully address this I can give part of an answer:

If you're looking at 4 satellites there are actually two possible solutions to the equations. Normally you can reject one because it's far out from the Earth is on or very near the Earth's surface. If you try to use it out in deep space you can't make this assumption and thus a fix will require five satellites, not four.

Furthermore, the farther from Earth you get the more closely grouped the satellites will become from your vantage point and thus the more inaccurate the fix.

I'll leave it to others to determine how far away you can get before the signal is too weak and if the satellites themselves have antennas that direct their energy earthward (which they very well might. A directional antenna cuts the power needed for the transmitter and thus the area of the solar cells needed to power it.)

Note that most civilian units do not function in space, period. This is a design decision, not a technical limitation--it keeps some black hat from using one to guide their missile. Some of them shut down at altitudes low enough to cause problems for people sending balloons to the edge of space.

  • $\begingroup$ interesting on the balloons! thanks Loren! $\endgroup$ – Kamic Oct 7 '14 at 21:03
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    $\begingroup$ "If you're looking at 4 satellites there are actually two possible solutions to the equations." This is incorrect. It's true for 3 pure range measurements; the solution for 4 pseudorange measurements is fully determined. Your other points are spot on (and indeed, the GPS transmit antennas are directional exactly as you suggest) $\endgroup$ – pericynthion Oct 7 '14 at 22:27
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    $\begingroup$ The non-functioning in balloons is a design mistake. To qualify as civilian units, GPS is not allowed to work above FL1000 and 1000 km/h combined. That's ICBM territory. The design mistake is to fail when only one restriction is exceeded. $\endgroup$ – MSalters Oct 8 '14 at 8:33
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    $\begingroup$ Any space based system that uses GPS, at least in the US, can get permission to use GPS at orbital altitudes and speeds, it just requires the appropriate permission. 4 satellites is what is required if you don't have an accurate timestamp, and it does provide 2 solutions. 5 will overcome that limitation. $\endgroup$ – PearsonArtPhoto Oct 8 '14 at 13:35
  • $\begingroup$ @PearsonArtPhoto These days is there really such a thing as "permission to use" a GPS signal? I understand there are voluntarily imposed "permission to export" restrictions on shipping hardware, but I've never heard of someone getting caught using a GPS signal without appropriate permission, at least after the military/nonmilitary modes were merged (or whatever that was called). If there is such a thing as "permission to use" a GPS signal, please let me know, and if you think it's interesting, I can ask again as a proper question. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Feb 26 '17 at 2:37

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