Headlines > News > Russia's GLONASS satellite navigation system runs into problems

Russia's GLONASS satellite navigation system runs into problems

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Thu May 3, 2007 7:42 pm
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The Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) is a radio-based satellite navigation system developed by the Soviet Union and now operated for the Russian government by the national Space Force. It is the Russian counterpart of the United States’ Global Positioning System (GPS).

GLONASS has both military and civilian applications and is a graphic example of how space technology can be put to work back on Earth.

In late March, a meeting of the State Council Presidium held in Kaluga, a town southwest of Moscow, discussed the national space program. President Vladimir Putin, who chaired the meeting, said the commissioning of the GLONASS system is a top national priority and expressed hope that the system will start operating this year.

First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, a likely candidate to succeed Putin, said the operational GLONASS cluster will have at least 18 satellites before the year is out and will cover the whole of Russia. Ivanov oversees the development of the GLONASS system together with the Space Force and the Federal Space Agency (Roskosmos).

On April 9, Roskosmos Director Anatoly Perminov told the International Satellite Navigation Forum that Russia planned to launch six revamped spacecraft this year and to bring the number of GLONASS satellites to 24 in 2009. He said the GLONASS system would then be able to cater to users all over the world.

Unfortunately, the GLONASS project still faces major problems. The Russian mission control center said only 12 out of the 19 GLONASS satellites now in orbit are currently operating. Four more satellites now orbiting the Earth may be commissioned in the future, enlarging the GLONASS cluster to 16 spacecraft.

However, only seven of these are revamped Uragan-M satellites, whereas the rest are obsolete spacecraft, whose service life has either expired or will expire soon.

Quite possibly, all old spacecraft may stop functioning by late 2008. In this case Russia will have to launch 17 new satellites by the end of 2009. And working out the required launch schedule would be a mind-boggling task.

Moreover, to launch spacecraft in space is only part of the problem. It takes several months to commission them. Of three spacecraft launched in December 2006, one has not been activated yet. Some satellites were commissioned only eight months after launch.

Nevertheless, in line with the president’s instruction, all 24 GLONASS satellites will have to be deployed by 2009. With this aim in view older satellites are sometimes shut off in order to extend their service life, in order to report at the right time that the system is ready for operation. But this does not necessarily mean that the entire system will function without a hitch. It is also unclear whether the GLONASS system can be used on a global scale.

Each of the three GLONASS orbital planes will have eight satellites. The U.S. GPS cluster, which also has 24 spacecraft, plus five stand-by satellites, will eventually increase to 48.

Some elements of the GLONASS cluster, which has no stand-by satellites, are regularly deactivated for maintenance purposes. In fact, the system has not operated at full capacity since 1995 and therefore has not been able to cover the entire world.

One of the 24 satellites flies just above the horizon and so cannot be seen. With its 18 spacecraft GLONASS will only ensure uninterrupted ship and airplane traffic, while other users will have to wait for two hours or more. For this reason, it is unlikely that GLONASS could operate on the GPS-dominated Russian navigation services market in the next five to ten years.

Russian Transport Minister Igor Levitin said only about 1,200 of Russia’s 5,000 airliners have navigation equipment, mostly GPS receivers (92%); GLONASS receivers account for the remaining 8%.

Although Sergei Ivanov is in charge of the system’s development, President Putin has aptly remarked that no one is directly responsible for the end result and for the system’s ground segment. Moreover, Russian enterprises have not yet mastered batch production of user-friendly navigation equipment.

The situation is reminiscent of the COSPAS-SARSAT project, an international satellite-based search and rescue system, established by Canada, France, the United States and the former U.S.S.R. in 1979. The COSPAS-SARSAT cluster was fully deployed in 1995, but production of navigating equipment remained a problem. There are now about 660,000 locator beacons operating in the world, but there are only several hundred Russian planes and helicopters that have them. As before, it sometimes takes months to locate a missing plane in the Siberian taiga.

We must realize that the GLONASS system will not be commissioned before 2010-2011, and that there would be no use for a smaller 18-satellite version.

There are plans to orbit the first Uragan-K satellites, i.e. modified versions of the non-hermetically sealed Express-1000 space platform, in 2009-2010. Each Uragan-K satellite will have three channels, including one for civilian users, which will ensure its dependability and precision of navigation. The new satellite will weigh two times less than its predecessor, the Uragan-M.

This means that the new medium-class Soyuz-2 rockets, rather than the expensive heavy-duty Proton vehicles, will be able to launch two Uragan-Ks at a time from the Plesetsk space center in the Arkhangelsk Region, in northern Russia. In all, there are plans to orbit 27 such satellites that will operate until 2025.

A future, more advanced satellite navigation system will be made up of Uragan-KM spacecraft, whose specifications are currently being worked out. Flight tests will begin in 2015.

Yury Zaitsev is an academic advisor at the Russian Academy of Engineering Sciences.

Copyright 2007 RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

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