Russian Global Navigation System, GLONASS, Falling Short

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

5 min read

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.

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.

NASA

For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

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