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Inês F. Guimarães • Tiago C. de Araújo

Externato Delfim Ferreira
Rua das Pombinhas, 4765-227
Riba d’Ave
Keywords Special relativity • General relativity • Global Positioning System • GPS • Time dilation

ABSTRACT: In this paper, we will discuss the effects of special and general relativity on the Global Positioning System (GPS). It
is is based on time and the known position of twenty-four satellites, which carry atomic clocks for precise time measuring. These
extremely accurate clocks are synchronized to each other and also to clocks in the Earth’s surface. This synchronization is achieved
by taking in account the effect of time dilations predicted in Einstein’s theories.

1. Introduction transmitted by the satellites are uninterruptedly monitored

Einstein’s theory of relativity is far from being useless by receiving stations around the world and sent to a master
and merely theoretical. In the present article, we will look control station, where the computations related to the orbits
at how the predicted effects are merged into the Global and clock performance are computed. (Ashby, N. 2006.
Relativistic effects in the Global Positioning System)
Positioning System, analyzing both time dilation and gravi-
tational frequency shifts. If these weren’t taken in to ac-
3. Relativity principles
count, the GPS wouldn’t be reliable at all. Furthermore, the
steadiness of light’s velocity is vital for navigation. The As far as the GP system is concerned, both the effects
relativity of simultaneity and the constancy of 𝑐 are closely of special relativity and general relativity must be consid-
linked. This principle is also related to the Sagnac effect, ered, as mentioned before. Having this said, we will first
involved in the synchronization of clocks in the vicinity of take a look at special relativity, mentioning the postulates
earth and useful when matching clocks that have at least inherent to such principle. Firstly, in all inertial reference
one or more GPS satellites in sight at the same time, even if frames, that is, referential with null acceleration, the laws
they are thousands of kilometers apart. Having this in mind, of physics behave in the exact same way. Secondly, the
it is then possible to attain the first order amendment of the speed of light, c, has always the same value (approximately
time part of the Lorentz transformations. Finally, the theory 3.00×10! m/s). Finally, it is not possible to distinguish
of general relativity will give us the necessary insight to gravitational fields due to mass and caused by acceleration,
derive the gravitational frequency shift. considering a tiny region of time and space (Ashby, N.
2006. Relativistic effects in the Global Positioning System,
Our objective in the present paper is not to obtain ex- p. 2).
tremely precise values, since we will focus on the causes of In the GPS, if we consider the Earth-Centered Inertial
the synchronization errors and not in how to correct them. (ECI), whose coordinate frames have their origins at the
This way, the values that will appear throughout the paper Earth’s center of mass, it can be assumed, without adverse
could be a little more accurate.
effect, that the law of inertia still holds. This means that,
2. The fundamentals of the GPS unless acted upon by an unbalanced force, a body will pre-
serve its velocity and direction. That is of utter importance
The satellites that make up this system orbit the Earth since, in the ECI frame, the speed of light is fundamentally
at an altitude of approximately 20200 kilometers and at a constant, although the earth is accelerated concerning the
velocity close to 4 km/s. Furthermore, the orbital period of sun.
each satellite is one-half a sidereal day, that is, 11 hours
and 58 minutes. They carry with them an atomic clock 4. Relativity of simultaneity
whose accuracy is of 1 nanosecond (109 seconds). A GPS
It is also very important to acknowledge that the syn-
receiver determines the current position and heading by
chronization of the clock nets is contingent to the state of
making a comparison between the time signals it receives
motion of the viewer. Consider a bar with length x that is in
from at least four satellites and their positions. The data
motion with velocity v relative to the S referential (the
“moving” frame) and in the S’ referential the observers are 5. Time Dilation
at rest relative to the bar (see Figure 1 below). Suppose that
a light signal is sent from the left side of the bar and moves This concept is a direct consequence of Einstein’s
towards its right end. For the observer in the S’ referential, Special Relativity, and can easily be derived via the follow-
the time it takes for the light to travel from one side to an- ing thought experiment: consider two entities, Tintin, at
other (t’) is equal to rest, watching his dog, Milou, passing by in the X direction
inside a rocket with constant velocity 𝑣. Inside the rocket,
𝑥 there’s a time measuring mechanism, that functions based
𝑡! =
𝑐 on how long light takes from being emitted by the laser A
at the instant 𝑡 = 𝑡’ = 0 to being received at B.
However, the person in the S referential observes that
the light wave is reaching the right end of the bar with a In his inertial reference frame, S’, Milou measures this
relative speed 𝑐 − 𝑣. Thus, the time (t) required is given by !
time as 𝑡’ = ó 𝐷 = 𝑐 ∙ 𝑡’, with D being the separation
𝑥 𝑥 ! 𝑥 𝑣𝑥 between the “clock” components (drawn with red in Figure
𝑡= = ∙ (1 − ! )!! ≈ + !
𝑐−𝑣 𝑐 𝑐 𝑐 2).

This gives us However, in his S inertial reference frame, Tintin sees

the light not only going upwards but also sideways, just as
𝑡 − 𝑡! = (1) everything inside the rocket. Because of this, he sees light
𝑐! travel a diagonal path (drawn with green) of length 𝑐 ∙ 𝑡. At
In conclusion, if two observers were in relative mo- the same time, he watches as the rocket moves by, chang-
tion, even if their clocks were set equal initially, at the arri- ing his position along the X-axis by 𝑣 ∙ 𝑡.
val of the light wave they wouldn’t be.
These three distances mentioned form a right-angled
triangle so, by using Pythagoras’ Theorem, we get to

1 𝑣!
𝑡! = 𝑡 . ≈𝑡− 𝑡∙ !
𝛾 2𝑐

Considering that 1 second passes in the S referential

(or that 𝑡 = 1),

𝑡! − 𝑡 𝑣!
=− !
Figure 1: the moving bar thought experiment 𝑡 2𝑐
The relativity of simultaneity is also strongly related we get that the frequency shift, , between the two refer-
to the so-called Sagnac effect. Imagine that individuals on ential is equal to
Earth’s equator try to synchronize a net system of clocks
that are placed throughout the equator, by sending a light 𝑑𝑓 1 𝑣!
= − !
wave all the way once across with a system of mirrors. The 𝑓 2𝑐
radius of our planet around the equator is approximately
equal to ℓ = 6378.137 km, therefore the perimeter of the This simple expression tells us that the time measured
equatorial circumference is given by 2𝜋ℓ. To viewers on in the GPS atomic clocks, moving at approximately
the rotating Earth, it seems that it takes
seconds for the 𝑣 = 4000 𝑚/𝑠, will differ from that measured by a stand-
ing observer on Earth, rotating with a radius of ℓ =
light signal to circulate once around. However, for a person
in a local, yet non-rotating frame, the beginning point 6378 𝑘𝑚 and with angular velocity 𝜔 = 7.29 × 10! rad/s,
!!ℓ !!"ℓ!
moves a distance 𝜔ℓ ∙ = during that time, where
! !
𝜔 = 7.291151467 × 10 rad/s is the angular velocity of 𝑑𝑓 1 𝑣! 1 𝜔ℓ !
= − !− − ≈ −8.228 ×10!!!
the Earth’s rotation. This implies that the extra time the 𝑓 2𝑐 2 𝑐!
signal takes to finish the course is given by
Multiplying this value by the number of seconds in a
2𝜔𝜋ℓ! day and by 𝑐, we get, approximately, a mind-blowing
𝑡 − 𝑡! =
𝑐! 2.1326 km, which is too big of an error to ever be obtained
in a positioning system.
which makes total sense, according to the previously de-
duced equation (1). This discrepancy is of the uttermost
importance to compare remotely located clocks, such as the
ones present in the GPS.

ber like the one obtained in equation (2), we get a deviation
of about 13,7 𝑘𝑚.

7. Net Effect

For values of such small dimension, we can get the

net frequency shift by simply adding up equations (2) and
(5). The result can be further modified by considering that
the satellites describe orbits that are approximately Kep-
lerian and applying energy to these, from which we get
𝑑𝑓 2𝐺𝑀 1 1 3𝐺𝑀 𝐺𝑀 𝜉 1 𝜔ℓ
= − ! − − + 1+ + ∙
𝑓 𝑐 𝑟 𝑡 𝑎 2𝑐 ! 𝑎 ℓ𝑐 ! 2 2 𝑐!
Figure 2: the rocket light clock thought experiment
where a represents the semi-major axis of the satellite’s
orbit (see Ashby, N. 2006. Relativistic effects in the Global
6. Gravitational frequency shift Positioning System, p. 15)
Using the result we derived in equation (1) together
The first term of this equation relates to how much the
with an accelerating frame of reference, based on the prin-
orbit deviates from a perfect circumference, the second and
ciple of equivalence, it’s possible to relate the gravitational
!" third to the gravitational effect on time measurements and
frequency shift, with the gravitation potential difference the last one represents the effect of time dilation to the fre-
between two observers, ∆𝜑 (Ashby, N. 2006. Relativistic quency shift.
effects in the Global Positioning System, p. 10) using
Considering a perfectly circular orbit, the first term is
𝑑𝑓 ∆𝜑 nulled, and by replacing the remaining values we get to a
= ! (2) result
𝑓 𝑐
with 𝜑 being, for the satellite, with reasonable error, in = 4.4647 × 10!!"
terms of the orbit’s radius, 𝑟(𝑡), and the product of the uni-
versal gravitation constant with Earth’s mass, which values This fact is compensated by taking frequency
approximately 3.986 ×10!" 𝑚 ! /𝑠 ! , (Ashby, N. 2006. Rel- measures of the clocks after the satellite’s launch and send-
ativistic effects in the Global Positioning System, pp. 10- ing adjustment signals.

𝐺𝑀 However, these orbits never describe perfectly circu-

𝜑 𝑡 = − (3) lar orbits, and so a periodic deviation in the frequency shift
𝑟 𝑡 is caused due to the change in relative velocity and gravita-
However, for a clock located at the equator, an ad- tional potential. Thus, a correction must be applied, either
justment is needed because of Earth’s shape, and its poten- by the satellite, changing the information sent in the elec-
tial ends up being tromagnetic signal emitted, or by the receptor, taking this
into account in its calculations.
𝐺𝑀 𝜉
𝜑!" = − ∙ 1+ (4) There is also a frequency shift due to orbital adjust-
ℓ 2
ments, which we won’t be discussing here (see Ashby, N.
Where ℓ represents Earth’s radius and 𝜉 = 1.0863× Relativistic effects on SV clocks due to orbit changes, and
10!! the Earth’s quadrupole moment coefficient (Ashby, due to Earth’s oblateness)
N. 2006. Relativistic effects in the Global Positioning Sys-
tem, p. 11). 8. Conclusion

Taking equations (3) and (4) into account, we can cal- To summarize, it is mandatory to take into account
culate the expected frequency shift Einstein’s theory of relativity when synchronizing the ex-
tremely precise atomic clocks that compose the satellites of
𝑑𝑓 𝜑 𝑡 − 𝜑!" 𝐺𝑀 𝐺𝑀 𝜉 the Global Positioning System with the ones located at
= !
= − !
− − ! ∙ 1+ Earth’s surface.
𝑓 𝑐 𝑟 𝑡 𝑐 ℓ𝑐 2

≈ 5.288 ×10!!" (5) Firstly, by dissecting the concepts in the Relativity of

Simultaneity and the Sagnac effect, we were able to clinch
assuming that 𝑟 𝑡 remains constant, that is, the orbit the that if two viewers are in relative motion, then times passes
satellite describes is perfectly circular. Treating this num- differently for both. These concepts, related to the Doppler

Effect in an accelerated frame of reference, told us that this
system is under a gravitational frequency shift relative to
the Earth, predicted by General Relativity.

On top of this, we added the effect of Special Rela-

tivity, with its intrinsic time dilation consequences, which
also cause a frequency shift between clocks on the system’s
satellites and located on Earth’s surface.

As a result, the net deviation obtained is approximate-

ly equal to 11.5725 kilometers each day, which is an error
that cannot simply be disregarded. For instance, at the end
of an uncorrected day, our school would magically move to

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POGGE, R. 2006. Astronomy 162: Introduction to Stars,
Galaxies, & the Universe. Retrieved from
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and the Global Navigation Satellite Systems.