Space: It's 1996 Again

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October 19, 2011: Russia recently put another GLONASS navigation satellite into orbit, returning the system to sufficient size to provide worldwide coverage. Four more GLONASS birds will go into orbit before the end of the year (as spares), three of them on one Proton launcher. A similar launch ten months ago failed, and the three satellites crashed into the Pacific. The cause was an error by the crew loading fuel into the Proton rocket. Too much liquid oxygen was loaded into one tank, making the rocket too heavy to follow the flight path its guidance system was programmed for. Senior members of the Russian Space Administration were fired and launch procedures reviewed and revised. The failure last December was supposed to restore the GLONASS to full operational size for the first time since 1996.

Three years ago, Russia thought it had GLONASS ready for prime time. Three more GLONASS satellites had just gone into orbit. These, in addition to those put up a few months earlier, meant there were 20 GLONASS birds up there. Russia planned to have the system operational by 2010. That plan fell apart. Last year, for example, of the 22 GLONASS satellites in orbit, only sixteen of them were working. That's particularly discouraging, because 18 of the GLONASS birds must be operational to provide worldwide service.

GLONASS seems to be cursed, because every time the system is about to reach full operations, something bad happens. Two years ago, it was a batch of six satellites ready for launch, that were discovered to have some serious technical flaws. Some already in orbit also had the flaw. Worse yet, the rest of the world had grown tired of waiting. Manufacturers of devices that use satellite navigation overwhelmingly prefer to use good old, reliable, GPS. So Russia is installing GLONASS in a lot of its military equipment, along with GPS receivers. The two systems provide a backup for each other.

GLONASS was at full strength (24 satellites, including spares) in 1995, shortly after the Cold War ended in 1991. But the end of the Cold War meant the end of the regular financing for GLONASS. Maintaining the system required launching replacement satellites every 5-7 years. There was no money for that in the 1990s. By the end of 2002, only seven GLONASS birds were still operational. However, a series of launches in 2003 increased the number of active satellites to twelve, and it went to 18 by the end of 2007, and it was planned to have the full 24 birds up by last year. That delay came as no surprise. Because of all this drama, since the 1990s, Russian military personnel have unofficially adopted GPS.

 


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