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.

Ilya Naymushin/Reuters
Engineer Boris Zyryanov works on a GLONASS-M space navigation satellite, one of three which crashed near Hawaii on December 5, after blasting off from Russia's Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan, in the assembly area of the open joint-stock company Reshetnev Information Satellite Systems in the Siberian town of Zheleznogorsk, in this August 23 file photo.

Russia's efforts to launch a full-fledged alternative to America's Global Positioning System (GPS) suffered a major setback on Sunday, when three satellites meant to complete the system crashed into the Pacific Ocean.

A programming error reportedly caused the Russian Proton-M booster rocket carrying the three Glonass-M units to veer off course following a successful blastoff from Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan. That led controllers to abort the mission and splash the rocket down about 1,000 miles northwest of Hawaii.

Russian space experts say they're taking the estimated $500 million loss "philosophically," but admit that the blow to Russian hopes and national prestige is a painful one.

Medvedev asks for names of those responsible

Last week, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev hailed the imminent completion of the Glonass project as a major step in Russia's efforts to modernize its economic base, join the ranks of advanced space-faring nations, and end the widespread perception that Russia's former Soviet space program has degenerated into little more than a "rocket taxi" that ferries supplies and tourists into orbit.

"Before the end of the year, the satellite fleet for Glonass will be fully formed, and the next two years will see the finalization of key digital navigation maps and the commencement of the use of the system’s navigators," Mr. Medvedev said in an upbeat State of the Nation address.

Today, an angry Medvedev ordered Russia's prosecutor-general, Yury Chaika, to investigate and name those responsible for the failure. He also demanded a full audit of the nearly $2 billion the Kremlin has spent on the orbiting navigation network.

Russia's answer to GPS

Glonass, Russia's answer to GPS, is intended as a revived and vastly upgraded version of a mainly-military former Soviet satellite network that fell apart due to underfunding and neglect around 1995. The new Glonass is intended to serve both military and civilian needs, and will compete with GPS as well as the planned Chinese Compass system and the European Union's future Galileo positioning system.

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.

"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."

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