Space: GPS Clones Choke


December 5, 2009: A year ago, Russia thought it had its GPS clone, GLONASS, ready for prime time. Three more GLONASS satellites had just gone into orbit. These, in addition to those put up a few months earlier, meant there were 20 GLONASS birds up there. Russia planed to have the system operational by 2010. That has now fallen apart. A year later, only 19 GLONASS satellite are in orbit, and only fifteen of them are working. That's particularly discouraging, because 18 of the GLONASS birds must be operational to provide service to all of Russians vast territory. GLONASS seems to be cursed, because every time the system is about to reach full operations, something bad happens. This time it was a batch of six satellites ready for launch, that were discovered to have some serious technical flaws (as have some already in orbit). Worse yet, the rest of the world had grown tired of waiting. Manufacturers of devices that use satellite navigation, overwhelmingly prefer to use good old, reliable, GPS.

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 it was planned to have the full 24 birds up 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 committed itself to 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. This creates persistent resistance to GLONASS within the Russian government.

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, the first production satellite is to be launched by the end 2010.

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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