Space: GPS Competition Closing In

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April 13,2008: The success of the U.S. GPS satellite navigation system has generated lots of competition. But so far, these other efforts have had rough going. A European consortium is going forward with its own version of GPS, called Galileo, despite growing costs and technical problems. Initially, Galileo was to be funded with private money. But the costs climbed beyond the most optimistic estimates of future income, so now Galileo will be paid for by tax dollars, as was GPS, and the competing Russian and Chinese systems.

So far, only one Galileo satellite has been launched, simply for research, although the original plan called for four to be up there by now, to provide a sufficient number of birds for a test system. As it is, a second test satellite is to be launched this month. Originally, all 30 satellites were to be up by this year, but now the target date is 2014. China has offered to invest in Galileo, and the Europeans are happy to have the help. Galileo will cost over $11 billion when completed, and the fifteen nations of the European Space Agency (ESA) have put in several hundred million dollars already. This however, is more than twice what the system was originally expected to cost.

Galileo came about because the Europeans didn't like being dependent on an American system, and don't believe the Russians will be able to keep their GLONASS system viable. If Galileo becomes operational, the European nations will pay for it, but anyone can use it. Dual signal (GPS and Galileo) receivers won't cost much more (maybe 20 percent more) than GPS receivers do. Having two separate sets of signals makes for more reliable and accurate receivers. Also, the way Galileo is being set up, it will provide improved reliability in higher latitudes and in built up areas.

Russia's answer to GPS, GLONASS, was at full strength (24 satellites) shortly after the Cold War ended (1995). But the end of the Cold War meant the end of the regular financing for GLONASS. Maintaining the system meant launching replacement satellites every 5-7 years. By the end of 2002, only seven GLONASS birds were still operational. However, a series of launches in 2003 increased the number of active satellites to twelve, and that went to 18 by the end of 2007. Russia plans to put eight more GLONASS satellites in orbit this year. That would expand the system to 24 navigation satellites. Russia plans to have the system fully operational next year. Right now, it is active for most of Russia. With 24 birds, it will cover the globe and be a competitor for GPS.

The money for GLONASS is coming from a Russian government that does not want to be dependent on the American Department of Defense controlled GPS system. But the money is only there because of high oil prices. Most GLONASS receivers in use are actually combined GPS/GLONASS receivers. Russia will have to put billions of dollars into GLONASS over the next few years to get the system fully operational, and then spend even more money to maintain the satellite network.

China has a satellite navigation system called BeiDou. Think of this system as GPS light. BeiDou only covers East Asia, and not even all of China. But it covers the areas along the coast, and Taiwan. The BeiDou system is less accurate than GPS, slower, but it does allow two way traffic. This is useful for sending short messages (up to 120 Chinese characters so, about a hundred words). Sort of IM (Instant Messaging) class stuff. The system can only handle a few hundred thousand users, but that would be sufficient for the number of Chinese troops involved in any major operation. BeiDou also suffers some reliability problems, and is apparently very vulnerable to jamming and spoofing. Because of all that, it is believed that BeiDou is just a first generation system. A training system, one where China learns the ins and outs of building satellite navigation systems.

No one has found a way to make a buck off a network of navigation satellites. At least not directly There are plenty of ideas, but no one has yet turned any of those ideas into cash.

 


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