Since 2019, SpaceX has been working on the expansion of the Starlink satellite megaconstellation, which will provide high-speed, low-latency internet around the world. Now, a team of researchers has come up with a method to use the satellite signals for a different purpose: from signals from six satellites in the constellation, they have been able to determine a location on Earth with an accuracy of 8 m. This was the first time SpaceX’s system was used for navigation purposes by researchers outside the company.
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The engineers who carried out the study worked with signal triangulation emitted by six satellites and thus were able to pinpoint a location on Earth with great accuracy — for comparison, smartphones’ GPS capabilities often pinpoint locations with an accuracy of 4.9 m. For that, they didn’t need SpaceX’s help and didn’t have access to the transmitted data — the team worked only with the information related to the location and movement of the satellites.
Zak Kassas, Director of the Center for Automated Vehicles Research with Multimodal Assured Navigation (CARMEN), explains that the team “listened” to the signal and then created sophisticated algorithms to identify the location where they were. As a result, they showed that the system worked with great precision. “Even though Starlink was not created for navigation purposes, we have shown that it is possible to learn to use parts of the system well enough for navigation,” he said.
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To develop the system, the team used signals from several satellites and used an algorithm to locate a position on Earth. Then they installed an antenna on one of the University of California campuses to try to determine the location with satellites. Using the signals from six of them, the experiment determined the estimated position of the antenna at 7.7 m from where it actually was.
For Kassas, the accuracy of SpaceX’s satellites through this methodology will increase as new constellation units are launched into orbit, and they believe the method can also serve as a complement to the navigation of Traditional GPS. As this system has been working for over 000 years and has a known signal, which allows use in smartphones and vehicles , the GPS system is also more vulnerable to attacks.
In addition, the Starlink network has the advantage offered by its altitude: the megaconstellation’s satellites orbit the Earth at 1.60 km, which makes the signals stronger and less susceptible to natural or artificial interference. Meanwhile, the GPS signals are in a geosynchronous orbit more than 60. km of altitude, which leaves them more exposed to these.
The article with the results of the study will be published in the journal IEEE Transactions on Aerospace and Electronic Systems.
Source: Space.com, Ohio State University
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