Russia's $2 billion project to rival America's GPS suffers setback
On Sunday, three satellites meant to complete the highly touted Glonass system crashed in the Pacific after veering off course, reportedly due to a programming error.
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In recent years, Russia has successfully placed 26 Glonass satellites into orbit, and the three that were lost had been meant to complete global coverage in advance of a projected rollout of the system early next year.Skip to next paragraph
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"We aren't interested in being in opposition to anyone, but believe that no matter how good one system may be, there should be no monopoly," says Alexander Vorobyov, press spokesman for the Russian space agency Roskosmos, explaining why Russia wants to have its own space-based navigation network.
"It's also a guarantee that if something happens to one system, then there will be another in reserve. Besides that, there is the issue of military navigation, which I do not touch upon," he says.
Glonass to be 'fully global' by March 2011
Mr. Vorobyov says the loss of the three satellites will not set the Glonass launch back. "Glonass already covers all of Russian territory, and around 95 percent of the world," he says. "It's pretty close to the coverage of GPS, but even two years ago, Glonass was processing signals more quickly. We now expect our system to go fully global by March 2011."
Independent space experts agree that Glonass probably won't be set back for long; some suggest it might cause up to a year's delay.
For many Russians, the inauguration of the new national system will be a symbolic first step in the long march of Russia's space program from near oblivion a decade ago to being a major player once again.
Some ideas being funded by the Kremlin include studies that might lead to building a nuclear-powered space ship that could carry astronauts to Mars and a $2 billion plan by the rocket-builder Energiya to construct a huge nuclear-powered space pod that could gobble up space junk and safely remove it from orbit.
"Failures of rockets and other space equipment are the sorts of events we take in a philosophical way," says Andrei Ionin, an independent Moscow-based space expert. "Of course this accident [with the Glonass satellites] has caused serious damage, to Russia's image as well as the project. But it's a minor glitch in the road; Glonass will be operational soon enough."