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Russian satellite launch boosts Galileo competition

Three satellites blasted off from Kazakhstan on Christmas Day to give Glonass nationwide coverage, marking a major step towards the Russian-backed system's completion
Written by Richard Thurston, Contributor on

Russia has taken a major step towards creating a satellite system to rival Europe's Galileo navigation system.

Three satellites blasted off from Kazakhstan on Christmas Day to give the Russian system, Glonass, nationwide coverage.

Glonass (Global Navigation Satellite System) now has 18 satellites, just six short of the number required to have a global system. The system has been funded largely from the country's vast oil revenues, and is due for completion in 2009.

Glonass takes Russia into direct competition with the US satellite system and Galileo, the proposed alternative in Europe. Although Galileo is not due to become fully operational until 2012, it has already endured a turbulent existence.

Several European Union countries are embroiled in an ongoing dispute over which companies will build the satellite infrastructure. EADS, Thales and Alcatel-Lucent formed the first consortium to win a contract to build Galileo. Its final cost also remains uncertain, a factor that contributed to an absence of private-sector investment in the project.

The latest cost estimate is around €3.4bn (£2.5bn), which some politicians believe is too high to warrant the UK's involvement. Influential transport MP Gwyneth Dunwoody, speaking in November, labelled British pursuance of the project as "folly".

One of Galileo's main uses in the UK is likely to be the provision of satellite coverage for the government's proposed road pricing scheme. Galileo will eventually include 30 satellites, of which three will operate as spares.

Development of Glonass began in 1976 and was completed in 1995. But following economic turmoil in Russia, the system fell into disrepair.

Now, with the firm backing of President Putin, Russia is committed to rebuilding the system and reducing its reliance on the American alternative. India is now a partner in the project, which will be available for both military and civilian use.

Until the Russian project is completed, the US system remains the only global navigation system that offers worldwide coverage.

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