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The Space Issue

The World Economy Runs on GPS. It Needs a Backup Plan

The small satellite network, which keeps global computer systems from freaking out, is shockingly vulnerable to all kinds of interference.
GPS III satellite.

GPS III satellite.

Source: USAF

Duke Buckner was enjoying his breakfast at the Renaissance Tel Aviv Hotel, looking out on the city marina, on the day that time stuttered. Buckner oversees marketing and business development for Microsemi Corp., an American communications and defense contractor, and he gets a copy of emailed error reports for its equipment. It’s rare to get more than one in a given day. But on the morning of Jan. 26, 2016, they flooded his inbox. He forgot about breakfast.

The complaints had to do with Microsemi’s timing receivers for the Global Positioning System, the ubiquitous satellite navigation technology that was built for the U.S. military and has found its way into all our pockets. GPS isn’t just for maps. It’s also a kind of vast, spaceborne clock. Computers all over Earth use it to determine what time it is, down to billionths of a second. When there’s the slightest disagreement among those computers, things fall apart.