A geodetic datum (plural datums, not data) is a reference from which measurements are made. In surveying and geodesy, a datum is a set of reference points on the Earth's surface against which position measurements are made, and (often) an associated model of the shape of the earth (reference ellipsoid) to define a geographic coordinate system. Horizontal datums are used for describing a point on the earth's surface, in latitude and longitude or another coordinate system. Vertical datums measure elevations or depths. In engineering and drafting, a datum is a reference point, surface, or axis on an object against which measurements are made.
A reference datum (mathematical model) is a known and constant surface which is used to describe the location of unknown points on the earth. Since reference datums can have different radii and different centre points, a specific point on the earth can have substantially different coordinates depending on the datum used to make the measurement. There are hundreds of locally-developed reference datums around the world, usually referenced to some convenient local reference point. Contemporary datums, based on increasingly accurate measurements of the shape of the earth, are intended to cover larger areas. The most common reference Datums in use in North America are NAD27, NAD83, and WGS84.
The North American Datum of 1927 (NAD 27) is "the horizontal control datum for the United States that was defined by a location and azimuth on the Clarke spheroid of 1866, with origin at (the survey station) Meades Ranch (Kansas)." ... The geoidal height at Meades Ranch was assumed to be zero. "Geodetic positions on the North American Datum of 1927 were derived from the (coordinates of and an azimuth at Meades Ranch) through a readjustment of the triangulation of the entire network in which Laplace azimuths were introduced, and the Bowie method was used." (http://www.ngs.noaa.gov/faq.shtml#WhatDatum ) NAD27 is a local referencing system covering North America.
The North American Datum of 1983 (NAD 83) is "The horizontal control datum for the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central America, based on a geocentric origin and the Geodetic Reference System 1980 (GRS80). "This datum, designated as NAD 83 ...is based on the adjustment of 250,000 points including 600 satellite Doppler stations which constrain the system to a geocentric origin." NAD83 may be considered a local referencing system.
WGS 84 is the World Geodetic System of 1984. It is the reference frame used by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and is defined by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) (formerly the Defense Mapping Agency, then the National Imagery and Mapping Agency). WGS 84 is used by DoD for all its mapping, charting, surveying, and navigation needs, including its GPS "broadcast" and "precise" orbits. WGS 84 was defined in January 1987 using Doppler satellite surveying techniques. It was used as the reference frame for broadcast GPS Ephemerides (orbits) beginning January 23, 1987. At 0000 GMT January 2, 1994, WGS 84 was upgraded in accuracy using GPS measurements. The formal name then became WGS 84 (G730), since the upgrade date coincided with the start of GPS Week 730. It became the reference frame for broadcast orbits on June 28, 1994. At 0000 GMT September 30, 1996 (the start of GPS Week 873), WGS 84 was redefined again and was more closely aligned with International Earth Rotation Service (IERS) Terrestrial Reference Frame (ITRF) 94. It is now formally called WGS 84 (G873). WGS 84 (G873) was adopted as the reference frame for broadcast orbits on January 29, 1997.
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