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  • Writer's pictureDAVID MITLYNG

Weekly Takeaways-December 19,2023

Theme of the Week

The Big 5-0 Happy Birthday GPS! Fifty years ago, GPS was born and our modern world changed forever.It was a bumpy road at first, but today there is no doubt of the value it has brought society: GPS has spawned nearly $2 trillion dollars of economic benefit and a half trillion dollars a year of revenue for over 700 companies, providing position and timing to 8 billion GPS receivers, one for every human on Earth.GPS was originally envisioned as a military program designed “to drop five bombs in the same hole.”But there was an interesting side effect that no one anticipated in 1973 – the rise of digital communications that needed precision timing. Synchronous optical networks (SONET) protocols were invented in the mid-1980s as a way to use lasers and fiber optics to move lots of data – but, as the name suggest, it needs synchronization.GPS was the only game in town.Since then, the precious timing signal provided by GPS enabled data, communication, and financial networks.But its success was also holding back the improvement needed for future applications like 6G, trusted financial transactions, the quantum internet, and efficient data centers and power grids.When GPS was first developed, there wasn't the extensive terrestrial infrastructure that could provide timing distribution and satellite systems were prohibitively expensive.Today there are over a four billion kilometers of installed fiber optics and 1 billion cell sites globally, and the cost of access to space has dropped two orders of magnitude.Fifty years on, GPS is more valuable than ever - but the newer generation is coming.

Last Week's Theme: The Lonely Halls Meeting

Industry News

  • Russia is starting to exert its electronics warfare (EW) advantage against Ukraine: "Ukraine discovered in March that its Excalibur GPS-guided shells suddenly started going off-target, thanks to Russian jamming. Something similar started happening to the JDAM-ER guided bombs...while Ukraine’s HIMARS-launched GMLRS long-range rockets also started missing their targets." And drone "losses to Russian EW, which either scrambles their guidance systems or jams their radio-control links with their operators, have at times been running at over 2,000 a week. The smitten drones hover aimlessly until their batteries run out and they fall to the ground."

  • The UK Risk Register added the Loss of Positioning Navigation and Timing (PNT) Services as a significant national risk, noting that: “A loss of PNT services, either due to technological failures or malicious activity, would have catastrophic and cascading effects across the UK and globally."

  • Space monitoring startup LeoLabs claims that Russia and China "seem to be timing potentially threatening on-orbit activities to coincide with US holidays — presumably when fewer American skywatchers are actually looking."

  • The biggest solar flare since 2017 hit the Earth last week triggering “a shortwave radio blackout over Central and South America” and “likely one of the largest solar radio events ever recorded.”

  • The increase in solar activity could impact power grids, networks, satellites – and birds. A recent study suggests that “space weather, including solar storms, can impact Earth by disturbing the geomagnetic field," disrupting nocturnal bird migration.

  • The threats from space aren't just coming from solar storms and gamma rays - there are also cosmic rays. Scientists “detected an ultrahigh-energy cosmic ray with an “energy level of approximately 244 exa-electron volts” that “is approximately one million times higher than what the most powerful human-made particle accelerators can produce.”

  • NASA recently broke their record for long distance optical (laser) communications from the Psyche spacecraft by transmitting valuable data over 19 million miles - a video of a cat named Taters.


The More You Know...

As GPS passes the half century mark (some credit the “Lonely Halls” meeting on Labor Day 1973 as the birth date, but the official date is the December 17 program approval) you can check out this “GPS at 50” timeline.There are actually two other important dates in the GPS story: September 1, 1983, the downing of a Korean Air Lines flight by Soviet missiles after drifting into prohibited airspace, and May 1, 2000, when the intentional degradation of the GPS signal for civilian users was turned off.These two events opened GPS up to the wider world.But there is a dark side: we are now way too over-dependent on a signal that is trivially easy to jam or spoof."Receiving signals from satellites 20,000 km above Earth is challenging. First, the path loss in receiving signals over that distance requires extremely sensitive receivers, typically to –150 dBm sensitivity, and good antenna placement...By comparison, a smartphone’s receiver usually operates with a signal strength down to –120 dBm, or 1,000× stronger than a GNSS signal."




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