Russian Sailors Bootleg GPS Waiting for GLONASS

Public Domain NASA Image

An interesting article on Strategy Page covers some of the history of the Soviet/Russian GLONASS system, designed to provide the same sort of global satellite-based navigation that GPS provides. The upshot, according to Strategy page, is that while GLONASS is partially offline, Russian sailors are using GPS — and the newest Russian military hardware is being installed with receivers for the U.S.-operated GPS system right alongside those for GLONASS. Quoting Strategy Page:

Russian sailors can pick up GPS receivers real cheap these days, and just carry them onto their ship. But now that Russia believes their GLONASS system will finally be able to provide global coverage, the elderly ALPHA technology is being officially retired.

GLONASS does not yet cover the entire planet, but will soon, again. Two years ago, Russia thought it had its GPS clone, 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 has now fallen apart.

At the moment, there are 22 GLONASS satellite in orbit, but only sixteen of them are 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.

In case you’re not a GPS nerd, I’ll catch you up: The Global Positioning System is a satellite navigation system developed by the U.S. Department of Defense, operated by the U.S. Air Force, and made freely available to anyone who wants it, worldwide. (Anyone who can afford a receiver, that is). That includes the Russian military — sort of.

In practical terms, the Soviet and Russian navies have used the ALPHA system, a Very Low Frequency navigation system that relies on land-based signals from just three transmitters located at Novosibirsk, Krasnodar and Khabarovsk, since 1972. The U.S. equivalent, OMEGA (no, seriously — I’m not making these names up) was developed beginning in 1968 and served as the primary American navigation system through the ’70s and in the ’80s until GPS was developed. OMEGA went dark in 1997.

The US VLF-based OMEGA system was only accurate to about 2,200 meters; Russia’s ALPHA is accurate to about a thousand. The satellite-based GPS is accurate to ten meters or less.

That’s probably why the Russians started developing their GLONASS satellite-based system in 1976 as a successor to its Tsiklon system — aren’t these names awesome? — the first Soviet satellite navigation system. To hear Strategy Page tell it, however, GLONASS is “not ready for prime time” and doesn’t provide global coverage right now.

On the other hand, Wikipedia’s page on the system shows conflicting information, including the fact that 24, not 22 satellites are supposed to be operational. Unreferenced propaganda-speak in the article’s header claims that all 24 satellites are operational as of September, 2010, while conflicting information in the same article claiming GLONASS “will be” operational by 2011 cite “Russian Government” as the source. Other statements about GLONASS‘s readiness cite a December, 2009 article in Russian that, when translated, doesn’t have anything to do with whether GLONASS is fully operational, but discusses an increase in accuracy.

Whether GLONASS is go or not, Russians seem dead-set on providing GPS as a backup to their sailors and pilots, at the very least. Whether they can hear that pleasing computer-synth voice through the static of propaganda is another question.

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