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What is GLONASS? 

So you’ve heard of GPS… but what about GLONASS? We’ve answered all the questions that come along with this lengthy acronym and how it applies to modern navigational systems.

What is GLONASS? 
GLONASS is Russia’s version of GPS (global positioning system). This system falls under GNSS, or Global Navigation Satellite System, which is the umbrella term for all navigational satellite positioning systems. (You can learn more about GNSS in our recent blog post.) 

What Does GLONASS Stand For?
GLONASS stands for Globalnaya Navigazionnaya Sputnikovaya Sistema, or in English, Global Navigation Satellite System.

What is GLONASS Used For?
As a system of satellites, GLONASS has many of the same capabilities as GPS. It is used to navigate and also synchronize time for users on the ground, sea, or in space. GLONASS provides geodesy information, such as coordinates of points and land boundaries, cartography for the military, animal monitoring and environmental protection, personal tracking, and facilitation in search and rescue teams, among many other useful applications.

History of GLONASS
GLONASS began development in the Soviet Union in 1976. The initial launch of the system happened in 1982 to aid in weather positioning and to measure velocity and time by the military. In 2003, another version, GLONASS-M, was launched. This factored in a civil code for more standard positioning and map-making. In 2011, GLONASS-K came along. This additional system prompted an even stronger signal. The most-recent launch, GLONASS-K2, set off to space in 2019, adding CDMA (code-division multiple access) signals, improving accuracy and increasing power, which benefits various radio communication technologies. This satellite is 70% heavier and has 170% more power than previous launches. 

The Future of GLONASS
As with other forms of GNSS, the development of GLONASS will continue far into the future. GLONASS-V is in the early design stages, and is set to launch between 2023-2025. GLONASS-KМ, which aims for a 2030 launch, is also in early research stages. A visual representation of GLONASS’ history and future endeavours is beautifully illustrated on Russia’s Information and Analysis Center website.

Although they are both a form of GNSS, GLONASS and GPS have some distinct differences as satellite positioning systems.

Number of satellites, inclination, and orbital periods all factor into these differences. Currently, GLONASS has 24 satellites in its system. GPS has 31, with a future aim of 33. Orbital height, an advanced way to measure altitude, comes in at 21150 km for GLONASS, and 19130 km for GPS. Plane inclination, or the angles of each satellite system, also makes a difference. GLONASS’ is a bit more pitched at 64.8 degrees, compared to GPS’ 55 degrees. Orbital periods come to a close tie, with GLONASS at 11 hours and 58 minutes, and GPS at 11 hours and 13 minutes.

Location is another factor. GLONASS measuring stations are mostly located in Brazil and Antarctica. GPS has measuring stations located all around the world, including Hawaii, Colorado Springs, Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, and Kwajalein Atoll in the North Pacific.

Is GLONASS Better Than GPS?
When it comes to positional accuracy, GPS takes the lead over GLONASS. However, due to the various positionings of the GLONASS satellites, it has better accuracy when paired with high latitudes (such as far north or far south.)

Just like GPS in the United States, GLONASS is also free for civilian use in Russia. In May 2007 a decree was signed to make GLONASS free and accessible to all forms of navigation. Foreign consumers also have access to GLONASS, free of charge.