Glonass still wants to be “the other guy in the sky”
Published: 06 December, 2010, 12:33
Edited: 07 December, 2010, 14:25
Proton-M carrier rocket with three GLONASS satellites on board being launched from Baikonur space center (RIA Novosti / Oleg Urusov)
Sunday’s launch of three Glonass satellites, which was meant to make the system complete and global, ended in a failure. But it is merely a setback for the Russian satellite navigation system.
Glonass’s path has long been a thorny one. The program was launched in the mid-1970s and was fully operational in 1995, just two years behind the American GPS. However, by 2001 there were only six satellites left out of the minimum 24 that are necessary, and while GPS receivers were used in air carriers to civilian airliners to every car and smart phone, Glonass was trying to fund a replacement.
It took the Russian space agency Roscosmos nine years to get Glonass back to where it once was. In 2010 alone, nine satellites were to be sent into orbit in three launches.
The three satellites plunging into the waters of the Pacific instead of reaching for the stars have certainly spoiled the show. A preliminary investigation showed that the failure was due to miscalculated data uploaded into the Progress rocket which carried the satellites, a source said on Monday.
Roscosmos officials already said they would speed up the next scheduled launch, which would make Glonass finally globally operational.
Strictly speaking, to say that the Glonass of today is exactly what it was in the 1990s would be wrong. Since then, Russia has developed the second generation of satellites for the system named Glonass-M.
Compared to the outdated version, it lasts much longer (seven years against three, which explains how the system degraded so fast in the first place), is 40 per cent more powerful and allows for better accuracy. The first prototypes of the Glonass-M were tested in space in 2003, while the first “true” second-generation satellite was launched in 2005.
At the moment, Russia is testing an even better version, Glonass-K, with the first satellite already in orbit. The third generation is being developed to be compatible with GPS and the future European Galileo navigation.
RIA Novosti / Mikhail Fomichev
Even if you see Russia as a country sitting on bottomless oil wells, you may wonder why it would care to spend hundreds of millions of dollars (the budget of the 2001 federal program to revive Glonass alone was more than $420 million) to have a GPS of its own. Especially since the original is there and free to use.
On a smaller scale the answer is – it is a military system, and it must be available for small scale conflicts, which the Russian army wants to be prepared for now. GPS is a military system, too, and it is just a side benefit that it turned out to be so beneficial for economies once made available for civilian use.
While Hillary Clinton and Sergey Lavrov may press all the reset buttons they like, a general’s duty is to be prepared for war. And they are, naturally, uncomfortable with relying on something controlled by the Pentagon.
An a larger scale, satellite navigation has become an integral part of modern life, and if it is disrupted, say, by aliens suddenly invading the US and kidnapping all the Americans (ok, that is not viable, but electronic equipment does fail from time to time, even the ones controlling nuclear missiles and satellites), it is good to have an alternative.
Russia is but one party which wants to build this designated alternative. The EU is building Galileo. China is building BeiDou. But the barrier for every additional player here will be much higher.
Maps and chips
RIA Novosti / Aleksey Druzhinin
It is no surprise that Glonass receives government support both in terms of investment and in gaining publicity. You may remember the tiger and other animals tagged by Vladimir Putin, personally, and tracked online thanks to Glonass. Russia’s counterpart to Santa Claus, Father Frost, has a Glonass navigator in his magical staff, the media reported last month.
However, buffing the value of the brand is not the greatest challenge the system faces at the moment. Even with the missing satellites in orbit and Glonass expanding its coverage from Russia alone to the entire globe, it still lags behind in terms of navigators and maps.
The lack of digital maps is a domestic headache. While maps for larger Russian cities are available and are promptly updated, this is not the case yet for less-developed areas. Producing digital maps for all the provinces may become the largest investment for Glonass over the next two years. According to President Medvedev, by the end of 2012, the job will be complete.
As for equipment, there are still just a handful of models of Glonass receivers, and even fewer of them are meant for ordinary consumers, as opposed to professional users. Some officials suggest radical protectionist measures like levying a 25 per cent tax from every GPS navigator unless it supports Glonass, as well.
Fortunately the situation is slowly changing. Qualcomm, a major chipset designer specializing in supplying hardware for mobile and satellite phone producers, already offers two chipsets with Glonass support – one for Android OS and another for BREW Mobile system. Software for both chipsets will be ready by 2011, a spokesman for the company said in November.
Hopefully, the market will do a better job promoting dual GPS/Glonass navigators than any officials. After all, such navigators are more reliable and accurate then those using only one system. That is the synergy bonus, which may eventually make Glonass an economically viable project, and not just an expensive backup for the top brass.
Alexandre Antonov, RT
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