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GPS vs. Galileo vs.

Posted on 05/12/2012 by abarrilado
We are all very familiar with the term GPS, or at least with its applications in civilian life. Available world-
wide, and always free, the network of American satellites that provide geo-localization to the masses are as
ubiquous today as smartphones are. Now, both Russia and the European Union are actively working on setting-
up direct competition for fear of being left out in the dark in the hypothetical situation of an American
retaliation. Are the systems comparable?
Like the internet, GPS has its roots in the Department of Defense (DoD). The result of observations on the
Doppler effect in satellites, the first dedicated satellite was sent to space in 1978. The service was not made
public until 1993. There’s been three generation of GPS satellites, with the latest upgrade triggered by the
creation of the Galileo project.

GLONASS was the Soviet response to GPS, and the first satellite was set in orbit in 1982. With the fall of the
Soviet Union also came budgetary cuts which affected the GLONASS project, It was not until 2001 that the
promise of the modernization of the GLONASS constellation came to be. Eleven years and several billions of
dollars/euros/rubbles later, only one new satellite has been successfully launched and the the survival of the
project is in question for technical and non-technical reasons as well.

Galileo is the European initiative for Global National Satellite Systems (or GNSS). As with everything that is
the result of intricate negotiations and contracts, its development has been slow, with the first satellite launch in
2011. Galileo holds the promise of a geolocalization revolution, with the upcoming introduction of new

Constellation characteristics

The satellite constellation is important because at least 4 satellites need to be visible at a given point in time for
a receiver to be able to calculate its position. Since none of the constellations are geo-stationary, the number of
satellites in the constellation, as well as the number and position of orbits will dictate the viability of the service.
Obviously, the ideal is to have an infinite number of satellites to ensure visibility from all receivers in the world
at all times. Since the sticker price for an individual satellite rounds €40M (not including deployment and
operation costs), a compromise between number of satellites and availability must be found.


32 (Block 27 + 3
Number of satellites in a complete constellation III) 24 spares

Orbital planes 6 3 3

Orbital plane inclination 55 deg 64.8 deg 56 deg

Orbital radius 26650 km 14100 km 23222 km

Satellite Period 12 hrs 11 hrs 15 min
Table 1.

The American approach is to have 6 orbitals, while the Russians and Europeans go for 3. All things considered,
GLONASS provides better accuracy of the northern skies, while GPS does a fairly good job of taking on the
rest. Galileo is too young – only 2 prototypes are in orbit at this time – but simulations on the final product show
augmented error around the tropics, with pretty good resolution elsewhere.

Transmitted data characteristics

For the sake of argument, assume that constellations are fully populated (GLONASS and GPS are) and that a
receiver has at least 4 satellites in its line-of-sight. Now what? Satellites in the sky won’t do us any good unless
they are relaying their position regularly to Earth, and the receiver is able to decode it. Table 2 presents some of
the characteristics associated with how the information is transmitted.



Modulation BOC, BPSK BOC, BPSK

50 bps, up to 50 bps, up to
Civil Data rate 100 sps 50 bps 1000sps

Error, raw mode, civilian band 5 – 20 m 50 – 70 m Claimed 1m

Operation bands L1, L2, L5 L1, L2, L3, L5 E1, E5, E6

Table 2.

GPS utilizes three bands, which overlap with the 3 generations of the service. It is important to note as well that
CDMA is utilized exclusively in GPS technology. GLONASS started its life as FDMA, with 25 channels (for 24
satellites). Scientists and engineers quickly learned that this was not such a great idea as the spectrum
overlapped with other uses. CDMA was added in the latest generation (GLONASS-K) to allow compatibility
with GPS receivers. Note that the operation bands are also very similar to those used by GPS, as is the data rate.
GPS, however, through BOC modulation, is able to transmit more symbols per second than GLONASS.
GLONASS receivers carry the burden of being able to decode both CDMA and FDMA signals, which makes
them bigger and more expensive.

Galileo takes a leaf from the GPS success story and sticks to CDMA in overlapping frequencies as well, but
increments the number of symbols per second transmitted. It also claims to have a reduced error than GPS.

Provided services
GPS started its life as a military protocol, and later got declassified for civilian operation. As such, it originally
provided an encoded, high-accuracy signal and an open civilian signal which is free-for-all. GLONASS behaves
in pretty much the same way. Galileo, however, was designed from the start as both a strategic military project
and a commercial one. As such, it will provide Open, Commercial, Safety of life, Public regulated navigation,
& search and rescue signals. Some of these signals (Commercial and Public Regulated navigation) will be
encoded, and its service will require a fee. Of special interest are the rescue signals, which are intended for
rescue operations – for the first time, a receiver will also be able to broadcast a distress signal back to the
satellite, and relayed in turn to an emergency call center.

After these innovations, the Americans have also introduced these services to the upcoming generation (Mk III)
of GPS.


GLONASS is now in the center of a corruption scandal, where a few hundred million dollars went missing. It is
also a few years behind schedule, which makes it hard for the world to take it seriously.

Galileo satellite launches, on the other hand, have gone bust a couple of times. With only 2 prototype satellites
currently in orbit, it is hard to truly consider it as a full-weight contender to GPS.

Therefore, at the time of writing, the uncontested champion of global positioning systems due to its presence,
availability, receiver cost, and ubiquity is GPS. Time will tell if this is the end of the story.