Space: Glonass Gone Again

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May 26, 2020: Russia’s answer to the American GPS system is stalled because sanctions have cut off essential supplies of electronic components needed to build new satellites. Not just the Glonass satellites but satellites in general. This is not a new problem because the lack of Western electronic and mechanical components began five years ago and now that shortage is threatening to gradually shut down the Glonass system and other tech-dependent operations as well. Back during 2014 Russia was beginning to replace the older Glonass M series with an upgraded Glonass K. The Glonass M satellites have a useful life of about seven years and currently 13 of the 24 Glonass satellites in orbit are older than that and in danger of failing at any time. In effect, the Glonass network is living on borrowed time. Two of the Glonass M satellites have been placed in reserve (non-operational) status and are being kept in orbit to give other failing Glonass M birds some kind of back up.

The new Glonass K satellites have a lifespan of 10 years but only one is in orbit and two were under construction when the sanctions hit. These can be completed but only by scrounging up the needed components by using locally made substitutes or by smuggling (at great cost) the needed items. There are also two older Glonass M satellites ready for launch. Any more Glonass M or K birds will have to wait for sanctions to end or Russian firms finally finding a way to produce the components or persuading Chinese firms to do so. Neither prospect is likely. The sanctions will only be lifted if Russia withdraws from Crimea and eastern Ukraine (Donbas). Doing so would be a serious setback for the current government and is not yet seen as a possibility.

The last Glonass M satellite is ready for launch but that will only partially deal with the fact that most of 23 Glonass M satellites in orbit are approaching the end of their seven year lifespan. Between 2002 and 2011 Russia put 33 Glonass M and one Glonass K satellites into orbit at a cost of $3.2 billion. Now only eleven Glonass M and the one Glonass K are still operational and have not exceeded their useful life. Since 2012 Russia has spent another $1.9 billion on Glonass since 2012 and launched only 11 Glonass M and one Glonass K satellites.

Russia expects to launch its one remaining Glonass M and two Glonass K satellites in 2020. After that there is nothing left to launch. The shortage of Western components has also delayed the building and modernization of ground support facilities for the Glonass system. With access to the Western components Russia can build three Glonass K satellites a year. At the moment that production is stalled. There is not enough money to finance research and construction of Russian plants that produce the Western components. There is also a shortage of qualified Russian researchers and engineers to develop and build the Western made components. Such an effort is very expensive and time-consuming and even then the Western components would still be cheaper and more reliable if they were once again available. Over the next five years more of the older Glonass M satellites will fail and so will the global reach of the Glonass system. By 2030 the Glonass system, in general, will likely cease to function.

The lack of Western electronic components has slowed down Russian satellite production and launch activity in general. More and more Russian communications and spy satellites will wear out and fail, leaving Russia without much in the way of satellite communications or earth surveillance capabilities. By 2030 Russia may be able to produce all the needed satellite components locally but that will mean Russian satellites will revert to older tech and reduced capabilities.

Glonass was at full strength (24 satellites) in 1996, shortly after the Cold War ended. That meant the end of the regular financing for Glonass. Maintaining the system required launching replacement satellites every 5-7 years. By the end of 2002 only seven Glonass birds were still operational. Eventually the Russian economy recovered and provided funds for a series of launches in 2003 that increased the number of active satellites to twelve. That went to 18 by the end of 2007 and Russia had 24 Glonass satellites in orbit by 2011 with the system again fully operational by 2012. As a result Glonass was the first real competitor for GPS. However, Glonass was not completely functional until 2016 because of delays in building all the ground control stations. The cause was a lack of Western components.

The money for Glonass is coming from a Russian government that does not want to be dependent on the American controlled GPS system. But the money is only there because of high oil prices. Most commercial Glonass receivers in use are actually combined GPS/Glonass receivers. Russia will have to put billions of dollars into Glonass over the next few years to keep the system fully operational and then spend even more money to maintain the satellite network. The sanctions have crippled that effort and forced Russia to consider whether it really need their own satellite navigation system.

 


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