Russian Global Navigation System, GLONASS, Falling Short

The GLONASS system's accuracy, reliability, and consumer appeal are in question

14 February 2008—Earlier this month, Russia activated its latest set of GLONASS satellites, a homegrown competitor to GPS. The government says that with the new satellites, the country’s global navigation system officially covers 95 percent of the country and 83 percent of the world—although independent experts put the real figures closer to 70 percent and 50 to 60 percent, respectively. Six more satellites are scheduled for launch at the end of this year. But all is not well with the Russian global navigation system.

GLONASS has come under stunning attack by none other than Russia’s first vice premier, Sergey Ivanov. Late in January, after issuing positive assurances for months, he suddenly declared that the system was inadequate and that those in charge had to pay. His complaints are that there are too few receivers available to consumers, that the accuracy is poor compared to that of GPS, that digital maps of sufficient detail and accuracy to match the GLONASS signal don’t exist, and that the in-orbit lifetime of individual satellites is so brief that their replacement rate is beyond the capability of the Russian rocket industry.

Ivanov’s out-of-the-blue indictment of the project was followed two days later by corroborative complaints from Colonel General Vladimir Popovkin, commander of the military branch that launches and operates most Russian space vehicles. His specific ”major concern” was about the quality of satellites currently being manufactured.

”I can cite numerous different examples of flaws in pieces of equipment that were assembled at different enterprises in Russia,” Popovkin told reporters at a Moscow press conference. He explained that some components were foreign-made because Russian industry was incapable of building them at all. Although he would have preferred to buy U.S. components, he said, he was prevented from doing so by U.S. export controls and also by the lingering suspicion in Russia that components purchased from the United States might contain Trojan-horse firmware harmful to the satellites. He said that GLONASS’s makers ”are forced to buy cheap parts in other countries and send them to certification centers. But those parts were not intended for use on spacecraft, which is why their quality is sometimes low.” In response, the payload manufacturer, the Scientific and Production Association of Applied Mechanics (sometimes called the Reshetnev Bureau), in Zheleznogorsk, Siberia, has recently decided to find a way to obtain radiation-hardened chips from Aeroflex, in Plainview, N.Y., after attempts to purchase similar components from the French firm Thales ran into major delays.

Ivanov’s main complaint was that the government had failed to create a commercial infrastructure for consumer use. Private companies in Russia had declined to tackle that task because the government had withheld GLONASS’s data formats—which made circuit design impossible—and because the profit from what would be a venture with high up-front costs was uncertain. A commercial infrastructure would require vast numbers of handheld devices as well as digital maps of the country with accuracies consistent with the system’s capabilities.

As of today, Russian domestic production of navigation devices is thought to be running at 1500 to 2000 per month, using display screens purchased from Samsung in South Korea—not enough to meet demand, according to Ivanov. The first consignment of 1000 units, priced at 11 900 rubles (US $485), sold out in 20 minutes late in December. Prices now range from 15 000 to 18 000 rubles ($600 to $700). Some cynics have even suggested that none at all have been sold, because the respected independent newspaper Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye ( Independent Military Observer ) couldn’t find anyone who actually owns one.

Another of Ivanov’s complaints is that the system’s accuracy is poor. Private experts in Moscow writing in the 1 February issue of Obozreniye report that the mean square deviation for GLONASS is 17.1 meters horizontal and 22.18 meters vertical (compared with 2.76 meters and 7.51 meters for GPS). The system’s accuracy is dependent on how well ground stations are able to pinpoint the locations of GLONASS satellites. But limitations in the ground-based tracking systems mean that they could get the position of the GLONASS payloads wrong by about 25 meters —10 times the comparable figure for GPS. The best the Russians can hope for, say these experts, is to be able to cut their uncertainty in half after the major expansion of ground tracking sites over the next decade.

Ivanov also complained about the satellites’ short lifetime. The satellites have a guaranteed service life of only three years, although in practice the age at failure has averaged four and half years. (Comparable GPS satellite lifetimes are 10 years guaranteed and 20 years in practice.) And there need to be at least 18 operational payloads in space. So the current satellite production rate of six per year can barely keep up with the in-orbit failure rate.

There are other, stranger stumbling blocks to the civilian use of GLONASS in Russia. Until the end of 2006, it was illegal for Russian citizens even to know their own latitude and longitude (or that of any other locations in the country) to the accuracies you would expect from a global navigation system. Soviet-era maps, and to a lesser extent Russian maps, are deliberately erroneous on the scale of kilometers or more—a holdover from a fear of invaders using domestic maps. While possession of accurate maps is no longer forbidden, it’s hard to find anyone selling any in formats compatible with space navigation technology.

And the project’s problems go deeper, according to Ivanov: technical specifications for a follow-up satellite, GLONASS-K, have still not been worked out between the military and representatives for civilian users, but launches must begin by 2010 or the current satellites will begin breaking down before they are replaced. GLONASS-K is not merely an improved version of the current satellite but an entirely new payload based on the electrical bus of a new-generation communications satellite called Express-1000. The new payload does not require pressurized avionics canisters, which had been standard for Russian satellites for 50 years, but will instead employ circuitry qualified to operate in vacuum.

Even before Ivanov’s candor, skeptical voices had been raised. Pavel Felgengauer, writing in Novaya Gazeta , one of the few remaining independent newspapers, revealed the satellites’ poor accuracy on 10 January, based on his sources in the military. His cynical conclusion referred to a Putin watchword: the ”rebirth” of Russia. ”With regard to Russia’s rebirth,” wrote Felgengauer, ”what first and foremost has been reborn is the Soviet-style dog and pony show for the leadership.” Viktor Myasnikov, another skeptic who elaborated on Ivanov and Popovkin’s criticism in the 1 February issue of Obozreniye , was even more blunt, bringing up the now-discredited promises about GLONASS guiding Putin’s wandering pet, writing that the dog should be kept on a leash because the GLONASS tracking device ”needs power from nothing smaller than a car battery.” A car battery slung around its neck may keep the president’s dog from wandering, but it’s clear that GLONASS is a long, long way from helping ordinary Russians find their way around.

About the Author

JAMES OBERG, a 22-year veteran of NASA mission control, is now a writer and consultant in Houston. His October 2007 article for IEEE Spectrum Online used internal NASA documents to explain the origins of the International Space Station’s June 2007 computer crisis.

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