Russia’s Glonass Satellite Navigation System Hits Major Milestone

A Soyuz booster rocket has successfully lifted a satellite for Moscow’s prestige Global Navigation Satellite System (Glonass) into orbit, marking an important success for a project the Kremlin hopes will rival the United States’ GPS and Europe’s Galileo systems.

The launch put the 24th satellite into the Glonass constellation, which will complete the network needed to insure full global coverage after it comes on line.

That landmark is a much-needed success for a system that has seen many ups and downs over the decades. Most recently, three Glonass satellites ended up in the Pacific Ocean following a Proton rocket failure in December 2010. That mishap was blamed on a sensor failure that resulted in too much fuel being loaded into the rocket.

However, the completion of the 24-satellite configuration is important for the system, which was originally developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s and languished during the collapse of Russia’s economy in the 1990s. Glonass went from having a full constellation of 24 satellites in 1995 to having just 13 functioning satellites in 2001.

The struggling system was adopted as a high-profile technology project by then-President Vladimir Putin in the early 2000s and given lavish state funding, and the goal of reaching full operability by 2009.

The government has spent $5 billion on Glonass since 2002. It is by far the largest project of the Russian Space Agency, which this summer asked for an additional $14.35 billion to fund the program through 2020. However, that request came just weeks after an Audit Chamber report described the project as “overpriced and ineffective.” The report said the program had scored well on only 18 of 28 effectiveness indicators.

Ultimately, the agency plans to have 30 satellites, including six back-ups, in the network.

A Competitive System

Fundamentally, the system is part of Russia’s ambitious program to modernize its military. The Kremlin learned the importance of having its own satellite-navigation system during the 2008 war with Georgia, when GPS service in the region was shut off.

But the government has also pushed hard to make Glonass a commercial competitor. Initially, the Defense Ministry wanted to limit civilian use to a less-accurate channel, but Putin personally vetoed that decision. Now Glonass’s civilian devices are accurate to within 6 meters, compared to 7 meters for GPS.

Using state orders as a driver to develop the system’s commercial potential, the government has tied Glonass into state emergency-management systems and has ordered all commercial passenger vehicles to be equipped with Glonass devices by the beginning of 2012.

It has also threatened to introduce stiff tariffs on the import of satellite-navigation devices — including mobile phones — that are not Glonass-compatible.

And slowly but steadily, Glonass is making inroads. Last month, Nokia — the world’s leading phone maker — announced it will release a phone that is both Glonass and GPS compatible next year. Several other global chipmakers are also producing dual-compatible chips. Chipmaker Qualcomm announced its dual-compatible chip in May, saying that using both systems could give consumers “a more accurate fix, or a faster fix,” especially in “deep urban environments.”

Russian carmakers have already begun producing Glonass-equipped automobiles.

But Glonass is entering a potentially crowded field. Not only must it contend with the well-established GPS system, but with Europe’s new Galileo system, a $20 billion project that will begin testing in 2014.

In addition, China is building its own global Compass navigation system, which is scheduled to be operational in 2020. And India is building a regional system.

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