Europe and Russia build satnav networks

 - September 25, 2006, 1:29 PM

On December 28, the European Space Agency launched the first test satellite of its future Galileo navigation system. Three days earlier, Russia launched three satellites to join the previous 14 in its Glonass navigation network. Meanwhile, U.S. Department of Defense officials expressed concern about whether GPS could remain competitive without major technology upgrades.

A second test satellite–Giove-B–will be launched later this year, followed by four fully operational satellites by 2008. The complete 30-satellite constellation is forecast to be in orbit by 2010.

European officials state that Galileo will both compete with and complement GPS. The European version, they say, will perform similar basic positioning functions, but with  greater precision, built-in accuracy correction and additional user services. However, the Galileo signals are receiver-compatible with those of GPS, thereby adding many more satellites and significantly increasing signal availability and, therefore, performance.

Russia launched the three Glonass satellites from the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan. Glonass was the Soviet Union’s 1982 response to the U.S.’s earlier GPS, and both these systems remain under exclusive military control. While GPS has attracted a wide civil user community, Glonass has had little commercial appeal, mostly due to the unavailability of civil user equipment.
With the disintegration of the USSR and the subsequent financial disarray, its 24-satellite constellation dwindled to as few as nine operating space vehicles. The Russian Federation has slowly increased that number, and it is reported that President Vladimir Putin has directed that the system should be brought up to its full 24-satellite configuration by 2008.

Foreign SatellitesRaise Concerns in U.S.

Over the past 25 years, GPS has been a powerful military “force multiplier” that has brought unique advantage to the U.S. and its allies. But there is increasing concern in senior military ranks about the way GPS has become an essential part of the national civil infrastructure of many countries and their military forces.
It is estimated that there could be as many as 400 million satnav users around the world by 2015. As a result, withdrawal of civil GPS signals, while once contemplated in times of tension, would now be politically unacceptable internationally, other than in extremely dire circumstances.

In addition, a recent DOD Defense Science Board (DSB) study notes that the arrival of Galileo in 2010 could show that GPS is falling behind in comparable technology and range of user services. The study also noted the forecast full operational date for the modernized GPS III replacement for the current GPS constellation has slipped to 2020, due to funding difficulties and spacecraft design issues.

The DSB study might effect the GPS III schedule by proposing that it use a Galileo-like 30-satellite configuration instead of the 24 satellites of today’s GPS; that its satellites’ size and weight be reduced to allow dual launches; that its anti-jamming performance be improved; that U.S. and NATO forces adopt combined GPS and Galileo receivers, and that there be more civil involvement in GPS operations and control.

The launches of the Galileo and Glonass satellites, along with the DSB study, have galvanized U.S. government and industry thinking about future of satellite navigation. While Glonass has never been a real threat to GPS, Galileo most certainly will be. For U.S. manufacturers and the GPS service industry, a large future market is at stake. The industry will certainly be keeping a close eye on this shifting balance in the next 10 years.