In January, Russia started a new federal ten-year program for developing a GLONASS dual-use satellite navigation system. Its main goal, and challenge, is to replace the old generation of satellites with new ones and increase the system’s reliability and preciseness to make it comparable with the American GPS and the European Galileo systems. The work was supposed to be done by 2020 but was postponed for the next decade due to the lack of technologies and industrial capabilities.
The new program’s budget is 484 billion rubles ($6.55 billion) for 2021–2030 (RBC, December 21, 2020). For comparison, the previous GLONASS programs, for 2002–2011 and 2012–2020, cost $3.2 billion and $5.1 billion, respectively (see EDM, April 27, 2020). As of January 2021, the GLONASS constellation consists of 28 satellites: 25 spacecraft of the previous generation GLONASS-M, two spacecraft of new-generation GLONASS-K and one spacecraft of advanced GLONASS-K2 version (GLONASS-IAC.ru, January 11, 2021). However, 15 GLONASS-M satellites have exceeded their seven-year warranted lifetime already, and two more will exceed the warranted lifetime during 2021. Simultaneously, the first GLONASS-K satellite that was orbited in 2011 and officially spent all those years in the flight trials phase will also exceed its ten-year warranted lifetime by spring 2021.
The GLONASS-K/K2 generation originally relied on the American and European space electronics that amounted to 80 percent of satellites’ contents (Vedomosti, September 27, 2020). Western sanctions imposed on Russia since 2014 forced Moscow to search for ways to either substitute previously imported electronics or find alternative supplies. The result was a long-term delay in manufacturing. Although contracts for nine GLONASS-K and two GLONASS-K2 satellites were signed at the end of 2015 (VPK, March 28, 2016), only one of them has been orbited so far—the GLONASS-K that was launched in October 2020. The contract’s total price, 62 billion rubles ($1 billion), meant that each satellite’s planned cost had already exceeded $90 million. For reference, the GLONASS-M satellite cost was about $30 million (TASS, September 1, 2020). Therefore, the substitution means reverse engineering and leads to additional costs in the long-term. The Russian space industry also suffers from excessive bureaucratic regulations (Sibirskiy Sputnik, No.24 (507), December 16, 2020). All these factors prevent the industry from developing on its own.
Reshetnev Company, the manufacturer of GLONASS satellites and a subsidiary of the state-owned space corporation Roscosmos, declared it was able to decrease the use of imported electronics to 45 percent and that the Russian navigation satellites would entirely rely on Russian electronics after 2026 (Sibirskiy Sputnik, No.25 (508), December 29, 2020). However, the plan for launches in 2021 is unclear: at least two GLONASS-K satellites, probably the last GLONASS-M satellite that is kept in storage and possibly one GLONASS-K2 satellite (Sibirskiy Sputnik, No.22 (505), November 11, 2020). Such an approach means the constructor faces significant manufacturing troubles amidst bureaucratic pressure from the Roscosmos leadership. In these circumstances, the hope that the out-of-lifetime navigation satellites would be operable as Russia is completing work leftover from the previous decade became a part of Russia’s space policy.
Facing the challenge of increasing the accuracy and reliability of the navigation system for the long-term, at least on its own and neighboring territories, Russia is developing a new structure of the GLONASS system. The main idea is the deployment of six GLONASS-V (a.k.a. GLONASS-VKK) satellites on high orbits, presumably on high-elliptical Tundra orbit (TASS, October 2, 2020). These satellites are being developed at the same satellite bus Express-1000, like the GLONASS-K generation (GLONASS-IAC, December 13, 2018). All that means Russia is going to implement the regional navigation system into the whole GLONASS.
According to the classic approach used in GPS, GLONASS and Galileo systems, a constellation of at least 24 satellites is deployed on the medium orbits as a global system from the very beginning. In this way, the system needs 18 spacecraft just to cover Russia. The regional satellite navigation systems approach, like Japan’s QZSS and India’s IRNSS, is quite different: by using high orbits, they need fewer spacecraft to cover their regions, though they do not deploy global navigation. Consequently, the GLONASS-V project aims to decrease the number of satellites necessary to cover Russia from 18 to six units. This high-orbit constellation would be able to work separately as a backup system. Supposedly, the Russian space industry would maintain the entire GLONASS system until 2030 with the deployment of eight remaining GLONASS-K satellites and 15 GLONASS-K2 satellites for keeping global cover (TASS, September 1, 2020). In that case, the GLONASS-V spacecraft will increase its accuracy on Russian and neighboring territories.
Simultaneously, the GLONASS-V project faces the same troubles as GLONASS-K: the limited industrial capabilities have postponed the planned deployment of high-orbit spacecraft from 2023–2025 to at least 2026–2027 (Vestnik GLONASS, November 14, 2019). Therefore, Russia is examining a “Plan B”: developing small low-orbit navigation spacecraft, though still without officially adding this option into the GLONASS program for 2030 (Sibirskiy Sputnik, No.22 (505), November 11, 2020). These studies consider the hypothesis that the constellation of tens of navigation spacecraft may fulfill the deficit of medium- and high-orbit GLONASS satellites in case of Russia’s inability to produce enough of them in time. The fact that this emergency case scenario is being discussed means the new GLONASS program may be significantly revised.