How do satellites track mobile phones?

Dec - 24 2016 | By

Mobile phones can be tracked using the global navigation satellite system. This makes use of around 30 satellites, and the desired mobile phone should be covered by at least 4 satellites. Also, the phone should either have built in GPS or a GPS app.


But the satellites are so far away yet they can be so precise in pointing down a phone’s location. So, how exactly does this phone number tracker? They do so by tracking signals from your phone, and this method is known as trilateration. So, your phone has to send and receive signals from the satellite constantly.



Based on the time these signals were sent or received, and the current positioning of the satellite, your phone calculates its latitude and longitude and hence the current position on the globe. Not only that, this can even help you calculate your speed based on the time difference between each signal sent or received. The signals are generally passed on through base stations and network towers. It is due to this very reason that phone tracking is not possible in some remote terrains and the midst of high rise structures.

How do the satellites work?

At any instant, the trilateration method requires you to be covered by at least 3 satellites. You can imagine that these satellites are sending down signals in the shape of a cone. The bottom of these cones will be a slightly elongated circle.

The center of these circles is used in a trilateration equation to roughly estimate your position and the point where all the three circles intersect is your exact position. The trilateration equation mentioned above is a very complex equation, but the description has been simplified to at least help you understand how it works.

Since the GPS uses around 30 satellites to monitor the whole globe, each device can get covered by more than just three satellites at a time. In fact, more the number of satellites covering your device, the more accurate is the positioning. Under normal circumstances, a device can today be covered by around 15 satellites. With the increased number of satellites launched into space, tracking has become more precise. So, until and unless the signals to and from the satellites are not obstructed by some massive structure, your phone will constantly be getting tracked.

Some phones like Blackberry and Trio have the hardware that can enable to directly exchange signals with the satellites whereas if your phone is a pretty simple one, then the same work is done by transmitting signals through cell towers.

Initially, the GPS was meant for strict military use by the United States Military, but later during President Reagan’s administration, it was turned to civilian use. However, the whole GPS is still under the under the United States Military.

Although the satellites work non-stop, the tracking cannot be done unless there is a proper device. Since the data provided by satellites are very precise and convenient, they can be confidently used to track any number of real time constantly updating locations at a time.

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