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Researchers figure out how to make the Starlink constellation a GPS-type constellation

Researchers working independent from SpaceX and without any of the company’s proprietary data, have found a way to turn the Starlink internet constellation — now about 3,000 satellites strong — into a method of pinpointing one’s location, thus making it an alternative to GPS-type satellites.

To be clear, no one is accessing Starlink user data here. The sync sequences are just strings of timings and other data that the machines use to stay in touch — the payload data is entirely separate.

In the paper, due to the fact that the signal was being targeted at an actual Starlink user terminal, the location had to be for that terminal too, and they were able to get it within 30 meters. Not better than GPS, obviously, but it could be quicker and eventually more accurate if SpaceX were to give the project its blessing.

A software update that slightly adjusts how the satellites send their signals and a bit of data on correcting for variance between their clocks, and Humphreys suggests Starlink transmissions could be used to locate oneself to within a meter.

You can read the paper here [pdf].

It seems a no-brainer that at some point SpaceX management will recognize the money they can make from this extra capability, and will figure out the best way to produce and sell handheld units. It also appears that there will be profit in allowing others to also tag on.

Conscious Choice cover

Now available in hardback and paperback as well as ebook!


From the press release: In this ground-breaking new history of early America, historian Robert Zimmerman not only exposes the lie behind The New York Times 1619 Project that falsely claims slavery is central to the history of the United States, he also provides profound lessons about the nature of human societies, lessons important for Americans today as well as for all future settlers on Mars and elsewhere in space.

Conscious Choice: The origins of slavery in America and why it matters today and for our future in outer space, is a riveting page-turning story that documents how slavery slowly became pervasive in the southern British colonies of North America, colonies founded by a people and culture that not only did not allow slavery but in every way were hostile to the practice.  
Conscious Choice does more however. In telling the tragic history of the Virginia colony and the rise of slavery there, Zimmerman lays out the proper path for creating healthy societies in places like the Moon and Mars.


“Zimmerman’s ground-breaking history provides every future generation the basic framework for establishing new societies on other worlds. We would be wise to heed what he says.” —Robert Zubrin, founder of founder of the Mars Society.


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  • John

    Interesting, but I don’t see how SpaceX can market and make money off this. They would have to do location better and cheaper than GPS, Glonass, and Galileo.

    One possibility might be a military application – could this potentially be used in a GPS denied environment?

  • Ray Van Dune

    “…could this potentially be used in a GPS denied environment?”
    I think it certainly could, and one of the strengths of such a solution might well be that, not being a bespoke GPS, it presumably would require other than standard anti-GPS techniques to defeat it.

    It might also be “dumber” than purpose-built GPS systems, and/or with less intelligence vulnerable in space, and more on the ground.

  • pzatchok

    Starlink is trying to make a partnership with a phone company.

    If it turns out it is possible to send and receive at least text messages directly through the satellites then this could also be used as an emergency geo locator for hikers and backpackers lost in the woods.

    Years ago when bluetooth was new I heard about an app that would sent text messages by bluetooth. This was an attempt to keep communications going even if the grid and the towers went down. The limit the functionality of the app was the amount of memory in each phone. Now though the amount of memory is huge and even in someplace like New York each phone would not get filled up.

  • LocalFluff

    The hurdle is the receivers, getting such chips into smart phones. As 5G network infrastructure is being built, so is UWB, Ultra Wide Band. UWB radio chips are also already in all new iPhones and at least some Samsung. models. UWB means transmitting across a very wide band of radio frequencies at once. This allows for signals to pass through obstacles like concrete walls and human bodies. Thus allowing for determining location by triangulation, measuring the time of travel for the radio signals from multiple fixed installed (in 5G cell stations for example) and so the distance to each of them. The precision can be much better than with GPS, better than centimeter, depending on how dense the stationary radio beacon network is.

    Verizon seems to be leading the way by installing UWB where they install 5G in most US cities. And most new phones can use it. The applications are however still very poorly developed. There’s a big potential for new business here. Lots and lots of application for business to keep track of things that move indoors. There are of course cheap UWB microchips available, no need for an expensive smartphone other than for consumer convenience. There are also cheap USB dongles with UWB transmitters that can easily be installed on computers for the one who would like to try it on at home. Keeping track of the cat or something, the applications do need some imagination, but there certainly are plenty.

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