On Christmas Day, Russia set off some fireworks of its own, launching the final three satellites needed to complete its GLONASS system, a military-run digital mapping and navigation system set to compete with the Global Positioning System (GPS) developed by the United States. The GLONASS system currently covers all of Russia—a feat unto itself, considering the nation’s sheer size—and is expected to offer worldwide coverage once all 24 satellites are operational in 2009.
GLONASS—Global Navigation Satellite System—got its start in Soviet Union’s Cold War days, when the Soviet military realized it needed a way to get exact bearings at any location on the planet. Work on GLONASS began in the mid-1970s, and the system has had 12 operational satellites, mostly configured to offer navigation and location services for Russia’s military in Chechnya. GLONASS coverage worldwide (and even within Russia) has been spotty; however, the Russian government has recently allocated significant funding to the project with the idea of offering an alternative to the U.S.-managed GPS system. The U.S. government can switch off civilian use of GPS at any time—and has done so for selected areas in Iraq during recent military operations; Russia doesn’t want to be dependent on U.S. technology for civilian or military navigation services.
Russian officials have said that consumer GLONASS devices should begin hitting the market in 2008, and by 2010 Russia plans to open the GLONASS system to other countries.