Space: GLONASS Grows Back


January 2, 2009: On December 26th, Russia put three more GLONASS satellites in orbit. These, in addition to those put up a few months ago, mean there are 20 GLONASS birds up there. Russia plans to have the system operational by 2010.

Russia's answer to GPS, GLONASS, was at full strength (24 satellites) in 1995, shortly after the Cold War ended (1991). But the end of the Cold War meant the end of the regular financing for GLONASS. Maintaining the system required launching replacement satellites every 5-7 years. There was no money for that in the 1990s. 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 it went to 18 by the end of 2007, and the full 24 birds by 2009.

The money 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 have put billions of dollars into GLONASS over the last few years to get the system fully operational, and then spend even more money to maintain the satellite network. Unfortunately, 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.

But GLONASS is doing a lot better than the third competitor. A European consortium is going forward with its own version of GPS, called Galileo. So far, only two satellites have been launched, one 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 third test satellite is to be launched by the end of the year.

If there are no problems with the test system, the full array of 30 satellites will be launched and operational sometime in the next decade. The system 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.

The Europeans don'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. The ESA is trying to develop a way to get people to pay for additional Galileo services, but so far no one has come up with anything that seems likely to work. Meanwhile, there is increasing pressure to abandon the effort, because so many nations do not want to pay for the escalating costs.



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