# GPS system and general relativity

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• cianfa72
cianfa72
TL;DR Summary
How GPS system works in the context of general relativity

One starts considering the ECI coordinate system in which the Earth's center is at rest with axes pointing towards fixed stars. One may assume it is an inertial frame in which the Earth's surface undergoes circular motion.

Clocks on Earth's surface and on GPS geostationary satellites are at different gravitational potential in the Earth's gravitational field. Hence there is a gravitational time dilation between them.

First question: does GPS system employ Schwarzschild spacetime model of Earth's gravitational field to evaluate the above time dilation?

Second question: what is the role of ECI ?

Thanks.

Third question - what have you done to answer this question? Where have you looked, what did you find, and where should we start?

phinds and Motore
From the Exploring Black Holes book - 2nd edition, the answer to my first question is positive. Clocks on the Earth's surface "see" time dilation for the rate of clocks sitting on GPS satellites (namely there is a gravitational blue shift that gives an observer on the Earth the "impression" that clocks on GPS satellites "run fast" compared with his own wristwatch). Maybe there should be another component due to the motion of GPS satellites.

The Wikipedia article on GPS has a short section on this question and a link to a more detailed one...

Without corrections for relativity, GPS locations would be wrong by over 6 miles per day. GPS satellite clocks would run faster by 38 ms[EDIT]##\mu s##/day.

They would run 45ms[EDIT]##\mu s## faster due to GR space curvature and 7ms[EDIT]##\mu s## slower due to SR velocity.

This might be a place to start. It gives numbers, but does not explain the derivation in detail.
(see http://www.astronomy.ohio-state.edu/~pogge/Ast162/Unit5/gps.html )

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cianfa72 said:
Maybe there should be another component due to the motion of GPS satellites.
"Maybe" there should be? Since there IS, I'd say you are right.

FactChecker said:
Without corrections for relativity, GPS locations would be wrong by over 6 miles per day. GPS satellite clocks would run faster by 38 ms/day.

They would run 45ms faster due to GR space curvature and 7ms slower due to SR velocity.
You mean the overall GPS satellite clock correction is actually given by the difference 45ms/day - 7ms/day = 38 ms/day.

So the above is, let me say, the overall gravitational blue shift of a GPS clock compared to an Earth's based clock.

Edit: which is the role of ECI coordinate system ?

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cianfa72 said:
You mean the overall GPS satellite clock correction is actually given by the difference 45ms/day - 7ms/day = 38 ms/day.
Yes. My understanding is that the GPS satellite clocks are actually set so that the counted number of molecular oscillations is short [EDIT] increased be the amount that represents 38 ms[EDIT]##\mu s##/day.
cianfa72 said:
So the above is, let me say, the overall gravitational blue shift of a GPS clock compared to an Earth's based clock.
That is beyond my knowledge. Does "gravitational blue shift" include the -7 ms[EDIT]##\mu s##/day? It doesn't seem like it does, since it is the gravitational effect.
cianfa72 said:
Edit: which is the role of ECI coordinate system ?
I am only a casual amateur, so that is beyond my knowledge.

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cianfa72 said:
Second question: what is the role of ECI ?
We have to choose some coordinate system if we’re going to calculate anything.

ECI coordinate positions and velocities correspond to our natural understanding of positions and speeds near the surface of the earth; that’s exactly what we want when we’re navigating so that’s what we choose.

Not that it matters for the sake of this discussion but I think it's 38µs/day not 38ms/day.

phinds, FactChecker, cianfa72 and 1 other person
cianfa72 said:
You mean the overall GPS satellite clock correction is actually given by the difference 45ms/day - 7ms/day = 38 ms/day.

So the above is, let me say, the overall gravitational blue shift of a GPS clock compared to an Earth's based clock.
No, it's the overall blueshift, period. The +45 is the "gravitational" part and the -7 is the "motion" part. (Note that, as @JT Smith pointed out, these should be microseconds per day.) The split between "gravitational" and "motion" is frame-dependent; those numbers are for the ECI frame.

The best reference online that I know of for GPS and relativity is this Living Reviews article:

Gleb1964 and FactChecker
JT Smith said:
Not that it matters for the sake of this discussion but I think it's 38µs/day not 38ms/day.
Indeed. 38m/s is long enough to be human-detectable. (I mean, not as a discrepancy over a whole day, but we can actually perceive a .038 second interval).

Say, doesn't this mean the entire universe is flashing by our eyes overhead at 38µs/day faster than we perceive it down here in our gravity hole? Do astrophysicists ever have to factor that in? I dunno, say, to the rotating pulses of quasars and stuff?

FactChecker
Nugatory said:
ECI coordinate positions and velocities correspond to our natural understanding of positions and speeds near the surface of the earth
Not sure to understand: do you mean perform a transformation from Schwarzschild coordinates to ECI coordinates ?

JT Smith said:
Not that it matters for the sake of this discussion but I think it's 38µs/day not 38ms/day.
Right. Thanks. I stand corrected. I'll correct my posts.

DaveC426913 said:
doesn't this mean the entire universe is flashing by our eyes overhead at 38µs/day faster than we perceive it down here in our gravity hole?
No. First, the 38 microseconds per day faster is for the "uncorrected" rates of the GPS clocks in their particular orbits. It says nothing about any other objects.

Second, if we left the GPS clocks uncorrected, we would see them ticking faster than ground clocks. The correction applied is to slow them down so they tick (effectively) at the same rate as ground clocks. So it never makes sense to say "they are ticking faster than we perceive them to tick".

DaveC426913 said:
Do astrophysicists ever have to factor that in? I dunno, say, to the rotating pulses of quasars and stuff?
I don't think any astrophysical phenomena are observd accurately enough to make one part in a billion differences in clock rate observable. But if such differences were observable, again, it would not be a case of such phenomena happening "faster than we perceive them to happen". We would perceive them to happen faster than would be the case if there were no time dilation effects.

PeterDonis said:
Second, if we left the GPS clocks uncorrected, we would see them ticking faster than ground clocks. The correction applied is to slow them down so they tick (effectively) at the same rate as ground clocks. So it never makes sense to say "they are ticking faster than we perceive them to tick".
Ok, so the correction is applied directly on the "adjusted rate" of GPS satellite clocks. In this way the overall blue shift is automatically "compensated" and the GPS clock is "seen" on the Earth as synthonous w.r.t. Earth's based clocks.

cianfa72 said:
the overall blue shift is automatically "compensated" and the GPS clock is "seen" on the Earth as synthonous w.r.t. Earth's based clocks.
Yes.

cianfa72 said:
Not sure to understand: do you mean perform a transformation from Schwarzschild coordinates to ECI coordinates ?
No, just specify positions using ECI position coordinates. It's what navigators have been doing since forever, or at least since it was known that the earth is round.

Nugatory said:
No, just specify positions using ECI position coordinates. It's what navigators have been doing since forever, or at least since it was known that the earth is round.
Not really that long, since ECI coordinates do not rotate with the Earth. Navigators since forever or at least since it was known the earth is round have been using what we now call ECEF (Earth Centered Earth Fixed) coordinates.

russ_watters
PeterDonis said:
Not really that long, since ECI coordinates do not rotate with the Earth. Navigators since forever or at least since it was known the earth is round have been using what we now call ECEF (Earth Centered Earth Fixed) coordinates.
Good point

PeterDonis said:
No. First, the 38 microseconds per day faster is for the "uncorrected" rates of the GPS clocks in their particular orbits. It says nothing about any other objects.
The 38 microseconds is due to GR, right? Which means it would affect any observations of anything outside our gravity well, no?

PeterDonis said:
Second, if we left the GPS clocks uncorrected, we would see them ticking faster than ground clocks. The correction applied is to slow them down so they tick (effectively) at the same rate as ground clocks. So it never makes sense to say "they are ticking faster than we perceive them to tick".
Right, so all phenomena happening off-planet are slightly sped up from our perspective (albeit by a small amount).

DaveC426913 said:
The 38 microseconds is due to GR, right?
It is a GR calculation for the GPS satellites in their particular orbits.

For other satellites in other orbits, the correction will be different. Nor will it always be a speedup compared to Earth. For low earth orbits like that of the ISS, it is a slowdown compared to Earth.

Once you get outside the near Earth region and have to consider other gravity wells, things get much, much more complicated. See further comments below.

DaveC426913 said:
Which means it would affect any observations of anything outside our gravity well, no?
Not the 38 microseconds specifically, no. See above and further comments below.

DaveC426913 said:
Right, so all phenomena happening off-planet are slightly sped up from our perspective (albeit by a small amount).
No. It's much more complicated than that. You appear to be thinking that the Earth's gravity well is the only significant effect. For objects close enough to the Earth, like satellites, that's a good enough approximation. But that only covers a very small number of cases.

For example: consider the space probes that were sent to explore Mercury and Venus. Those are closer to the Sun than the Earth is and the net effect on clocks on the probes would be a slowdown compared to Earth, because the Sun's gravity well is a much more significant effect.

Or consider stars closer to the center of the Milky Way than our solar system. The galaxy's gravity well is an even more significant effect than the Sun's so the net effect on clocks in those star systems would be even more of a slowdown compared to Earth.

And once we start talking about distant quasars powered by supermassive black holes, and have to factor in the expansion of the universe, it gets even more complicated than that.

DaveC426913 said:
The 38 microseconds is due to GR, right? Which means it would affect any observations of anything outside our gravity well, no?
Anything stationary at the altitude would show a 45 microsecond speedup due to GR.
DaveC426913 said:
Right, so all phenomena happening off-planet are slightly sped up from our perspective (albeit by a small amount).
That would need to be adjusted if it was moving very fast. The GR and SR effects oppose each other. For GPS satellites, the GR effect dominates.

FactChecker said:
The GR and SR effects
This is not really correct. "SR" implies flat spacetime, and the spacetime in question is not flat. As I said in post #22, the correct calculation is a GR calculation. In the ECI frame, the overall effect can be split up into the 45 microseconds per day due to altitude, and -7 microseconds per day due to speed, but as I said in post #11, that split is frame dependent.

cianfa72 and FactChecker
PeterDonis said:
This is not really correct. "SR" implies flat spacetime, and the spacetime in question is not flat. As I said in post #22, the correct calculation is a GR calculation. In the ECI frame, the overall effect can be split up into the 45 microseconds per day due to altitude, and -7 microseconds per day due to speed, but as I said in post #11, that split is frame dependent.
The overall 38 microseconds/day due to the overall blueshift is frame-invariant (one can calculate it in any coordinate chart and get the same result).

Could you be more specific about its split in the ECI frame ? I'm confused how ECI frame/coordinates are actually related to Schwarzschild coordinates.

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cianfa72 said:
Could you be more specific about its split in the ECI frame ? I'm confused how ECI frame/coordinates are actually related to Schwarzschild coordinates.
They aren’t. Once we have the times properly adjusted we calculate the distances from light travel time without further relativistic correction. This works because the distance correction is small compared to the time correction.

Nugatory said:
They aren’t. Once we have the times properly adjusted we calculate the distances from light travel time without further relativistic correction. This works because the distance correction is small compared to the time correction.
So the point is: by means of "rate adjustment" on GPS satellite clocks the (frame-invariant) blueshift is totally "compensated" (i.e. the "rate" of GPS satellite clocks is "seen" as synthonous w.r.t. Earth's based clocks).

What distances are you talking about ? Is it the distance of GPS satellites from the GPS receivers on Earth (like my smartphone's GPS receiver) ?

PeterDonis said:
It is a GR calculation for the GPS satellites in their particular orbits.

For other satellites in other orbits, the correction will be different. Nor will it always be a speedup compared to Earth. For low earth orbits like that of the ISS, it is a slowdown compared to Earth.
Yes, different, but still there. I am marvelling the at the very simple fact that, when we look out of our gravity well, we looking at a universe that is (on average) observed to be ticking by slightly faster than us.

PeterDonis said:
Once you get outside the near Earth region and have to consider other gravity wells, things get much, much more complicated. See further comments below.
Of course they do. But they will all start with that effect caused by our own gravity well. Other gravity wells will be applied (+ive or -ive) on top of that.

PeterDonis said:
Not the 38 microseconds specifically, no. See above and further comments below.
No, approximately, of course, depending on distance from Earth. (I was simplistically assuming that the effect is most pronounced very close by, and that, by the time you reach GSO or the Moon, the effect is relatively negligible.)

PeterDonis said:
No. It's much more complicated than that. You appear to be thinking that the Earth's gravity well is the only significant effect. For objects close enough to the Earth, like satellites, that's a good enough approximation. But that only covers a very small number of cases.
They can all be considered independently. Our baseline would be flat space, away from any mass. If we are looking into some other gravity well, whatever effect it has, we would always start with factoring out the discrepancy due to our own gravity well. That is tantamount to saying the universe, as we observe it from our gravity well, is sped up by x microseconds.

By analogy, say I am standing in a mining pit, a thousand feet deep:

Me: "I am on average, a thousand feet below the rest of the planet's surface. I observe the rest of the Earth on average by looking up a thousand feet. I must compensate for this thousand feet in all my calculations."

You: "No. You some guy 10 miles away is standing in his own 2,000 foot deep pit. You are not looking up at him."

Me: "In my calcs, I will always first factor out my own component -1000 feet - because my baseline is the Earth's surface. Only then I will subtract the depth of his 2,000' pit, to find the final discrepancy. I am, on average, a thousand feet below the rest of the planet."

PeterDonis said:
For example: consider the space probes that were sent to explore Mercury and Venus. Those are closer to the Sun than the Earth is and the net effect on clocks on the probes would be a slowdown compared to Earth, because the Sun's gravity well is a much more significant effect.
Of course, that too is factored in. In addition to the GR factor looking out of our own well.

PeterDonis said:
Or consider stars closer to the center of the Milky Way than our solar system. The galaxy's gravity well is an even more significant effect than the Sun's so the net effect on clocks in those star systems would be even more of a slowdown compared to Earth.
Yes, The component effects (both +ive ad -ive) are cumulative. That does not mean any given factor disappears.

I think you are over-analyzing this for my benefit. The GR effect due to Earth's gravity well - and only the component due to Earth's gravity well - is applied to everything we see outside it. The universe on-average is going to be accelerated compared to all observations from any flatter (such as interplanetary, interstellar or even intergalactic) space.

DaveC426913 said:
That is tantamount to saying the universe, as we observe it from our gravity well, is sped up by x microseconds.
Compared to an observer far from Earth? But still similarly positioned relative to other gravity wells? For instance compared to an observer at the Earth's L4 Lagrange point with the sun?

Sure. But so what?

russ_watters
cianfa72 said:
What distances are you talking about ? Is it the distance of GPS satellites from the GPS receivers on Earth (like my smartphone's GPS receiver) ?
Yes. Once we know the distance between us and several satellites we can calculate our position relative to those satellites and then, because we already know the positions of the satellites relative to the earth, our position relative to the earth. And that's basically what your GPS receiver is doing.

jbriggs444 said:
Compared to an observer far from Earth? But still similarly positioned relative to other gravity wells? For instance compared to an observer at the Earth's L4 Lagrange point with the sun?

Sure. But so what?
It started off as a simple throwaway observation. It snowballed out of control in a bit of a cross-wired debate of the details.

(Dipping into sci-fi for a moment, there was a cool episode of Star Trek Voyager "Blink of an Eye" where they found themselves stuck in orbit around a planet where the exact opposite was occurring: the Voyager saw the planet vastly sped up, advancing their civilization in the course of hours. From the planet's perspective, Voyager was a frozen star in their sky for centuries, driving them to reach for the stars.)

PeterDonis said:
This is not really correct. "SR" implies flat spacetime, and the spacetime in question is not flat. As I said in post #22, the correct calculation is a GR calculation. In the ECI frame, the overall effect can be split up into the 45 microseconds per day due to altitude, and -7 microseconds per day due to speed, but as I said in post #11, that split is frame dependent.
Thanks! As a casual amateur, I was not aware that the GR model/calculations included the time dilation of relatively moving objects that are in SR.

DaveC426913 said:
I am marvelling the at the very simple fact that, when we look out of our gravity well, we looking at a universe that is (on average) observed to be ticking by slightly faster than us.
No. This statement is wrong.

DaveC426913 said:
they will all start with that effect caused by our own gravity well.
Yes, but...

DaveC426913 said:
Other gravity wells will be applied (+ive or -ive) on top of that.
Yes, and in both cases I described, the effect of climbing out of other gravity wells (Sun and galaxy) is a slowdown which is larger than the speedup caused by falling into Earth's gravity well. So the net effect is a slowdown.

Also, as I said, gravity wells are not the only factor. When you're looking at a quasar billions of light years away, the redshift due to the expansion of the universe swamps any gravity well effect in either direction.

DaveC426913 said:
I was simplistically assuming that the effect is most pronounced very close by
If by "the effect" you mean the net gain relative to Earthbound clocks, considering only the Earth's gravity well, then you have it backwards: the effect gets larger as you get further away. (But how much larger it gets is bounded, and the upper bound is small compared to other effects in the rest of the universe.) And as you get closer, it flips sign, so that, as I already told you, clocks in low Earth orbit, such as on the ISS, run slower than Earthbound clocks.

DaveC426913 said:
Our baseline would be flat space, away from any mass
There is no such place anywhere in our actual universe. The spacetime of our actual universe is not asymptotically flat. An asymptotically flat model is an approximation we use when we only need to consider one gravity well and can ignore the rest of the universe. But the sweeping claim you made about looking at the rest of the universe cannot be analyzed using any such approximation.

DaveC426913 said:
Of course, that too is factored in.
Not in your claim, it isn't. See above.

DaveC426913 said:
The component effects (both +ive ad -ive) are cumulative. That does not mean any given factor disappears.
I never said it did. I said that the effect of Earth's gravity well is too small to overcome the other effects I described--not all of which are gravity wells at all.

DaveC426913 said:
you are over-analyzing this for my benefit.
No, you are under-analyzing and basing your claim on invalid assumptions. See above.

DaveC426913 and FactChecker
PeterDonis said:
And as you get closer, it flips sign, so that, as I already told you, clocks in low Earth orbit, such as on the ISS, run slower than Earthbound clocks.
Interesting. So there is a switch between the ISS at about 200 miles altitude (Low Earth Orbit) and GPS satellites at about 13k miles (Mid Earth Orbit). Of course, the velocities are also very different.

FactChecker said:
So there is a switch between the ISS at about 200 miles altitude (Low Earth Orbit) and GPS satellites at about 13k miles (Mid Earth Orbit).
The switching altitude (i.e., the altitude at which the clock tick rate is the same as for a clock at rest on the geoid of the rotating Earth--the altitude and speed effects cancel) is about 1.5 Earth radii (from the center of the Earth, or about 0.5 Earth radii above the surface).

russ_watters, cianfa72 and FactChecker

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