Russia's GLONASS navigation satellites will compete directly with the U.S.-owned GPS navigation system and eventually the E.U. Galileo constellation.
The space race against the former USSR may be heating up all over again.

This time, the target is not the moon, but the United States' virtual monopoly on terrestrial navigation based on satellite coordinates.

The New York Times reports that Russia's space agency is preparing to launch a constellation of eight satellites that will nearly complete a system designed to compete directly with the existing global positioning system technology of the United States.

Russia's system, called GLONASS (Global Navigation Satellite System), is expected to begin operations over Russian territory later this year, followed by coverage of adjacent parts of Europe and Asia. The system is intended to offer global navigation signals by 2009. Russia is not alone in its efforts to wrest control of the satellite navigation industry from the United States. While Russia is the front runner among other nations, China has already launched satellites for its own Baidu system. The European Union's Galileo positioning system is still in the planning stages, having hit a snag with its private contractors over potential profits.

Russian military officials have stated that the rationale behind the GLONASS system goes beyond commercial considerations. By controlling the only fully operational satellite navigation system in existence today, the United States holds a strategic advantage in times of conflict, according to the officials. In theory, the United States could deny GPS navigation signals to countries with which it has a dispute. Such actions could affect industries as diverse as agriculture, oil production and banking, to say nothing of military operations.

For the most part, the Russian system promises to be functionally equivalent to the existing GPS system. However, it could be more accurate than GPS in regions where Russia has better access to terrestrial navigation aids. Some companies are already designing dual-chip navigation devices that support both systems.

However, both the EU and U.S. will challenge Russia for next-generation satellite navigation coverage.   The European Galileo Global Navigation Satellite System is scheduled to come online in 2011 with higher precision than the existing GPS and GLONASS networks. However, delays put the Galileo project more than four years off schedule and counting.

The U.S. brought its GPS constellation online in 1995.  Congress approved funding to modernize the protocol 2000, dubbed GPS III.  This included bringing new civilian and military navigation channels online, as well as a "Saftey of Life" signal anticipated to come online next year.  Portions of this next-generation GPS are already functional, including the L2C civilian signal.

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