Russia loses three Glonass satellites to malfunctions

Russia has lost three of its satellites in a rocket malfunction incident, which means that it will have to send its cleaning satellite out to clean up its, um, satellites.

Russia believes the malfunction was due to a programming error in the guidance software on the DM-3 booster on the Proto-M rocket which was supposed to bring the satellites into orbit. Once the malfunction occurred the satellites simply plunged towards Earth, landing in the Pacific Ocean 900 miles north-west of Honolulu.

The three satellites were Glonass-M navigation satellites, part of Russia’s Glonass system (GLObal NAvigation Satellite System), which was developed in the 1970s and 1980s and is similar to the US’s Global Positioning System. 

Russia has 26 Glonass satellites orbiting the Earth, but three of them are not functioning and it needs 24 to give full coverage of the Earth. The three doomed satellites recently launched were intended to fill the gap, but now Russia is left with six dead Glonass satellites to clean up.

Last month Russia announced a $2 billion space clean-up programme where it would send satellites into orbit, like space janitors, to clean up broken satellites and other space debris that is encircling the Earth. A test is expected in 2020, with a full launch planned for 2023, with the clean-up expected to take 10 years.

Now it has a number of its own satellites to clean up, three defunct ones orbiting the Earth and three more at the bottom of the ocean. It is reported that Russia plans to dump its space debris into the sea anyway, so it may have saved itself some work by rocketing its satellites straight into the Abyss.

Three more Glonass satellites will launch in 2011, with Russia hoping for more success then. It is not clear if the current malfunction will delay that launch, but Russia has plans to require Glonass receivers be built into all new cars from 2012, so it will want its Glonass network fully operational by then.