Russian Rocket Launches Navigation Satellite Trio

Three new satellites werelaunched by Russia on Sunday on the first leg of their mission to rejuvenatethe country's system of space-based navigation that is relied upon by a host ofmilitary and civilian users.

The trio is the latestaddition to the Global Navigation Satellite System, or GLONASS, which is theRussian equivalent of the U.S. Air Force's Global Positioning System and Europe's fledgling Galileo program.

A Proton rocket gave thespacecraft a successful Christmas Day ride to space after lifting off fromKazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome at 0507 GMT (12:07 a.m. EST).

The launcher included aBlock-DM upper stage that performed several burns to place the three craft inthe desired circular orbit almost 12,000 miles in altitude and inclined 64.8degrees before releasing them into space at 0839 GMT (3:39 a.m. EST), a reportfrom RIA Novosti said.

The payload consisted oftwo upgraded GLONASS satellites, which feature longer service lives of sevenyears, while also substantially increasing the precision of positioning dataproduced using the constellation. The third spacecraft is an older model withan anticipated lifetime of three years.

Once operational, each3,000-pound satellite will enter service to provide exact positioning,velocity, and timing information to millions of users around the world,including the Russian armed forces.

Discounting Sunday'slaunch, the GLONASS fleet currently includes just 14 active satellites, but onecraft was at least temporarily taken out of service earlier this monthaccording to an online status report.

The system is designedaround three orbital planes, with each intended to contain eight satellites.Officials hope 18 spacecraft will be in space by 2007, allowing the group tobecome fully operational, followed by reaching the system's full complement of24 satellites by 2010, the Itar-Tass news agency reported.

The primary customers ofGLONASS data are found in the air and marine traffic and ground transportationindustries. Other users such as scientists, law enforcement agencies, andoutdoor enthusiasts also often look to space for navigation information.

The next Proton launch isscheduled for 0228 GMT Thursday (9:28 p.m. EST Wednesday) to haul the AMERICOM23 communications satellite into orbit for U.S-based operator SES AMERICOM. TheInternational Launch Services-managed mission, originally planned for earlyDecember, was delayed to replace a suspect gyroscope in the rocket's controlsystem.

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Stephen Clark is the Editor of Spaceflight Now, a web-based publication dedicated to covering rocket launches, human spaceflight and exploration. He joined the Spaceflight Now team in 2009 and previously wrote as a senior reporter with the Daily Texan. You can follow Stephen's latest project at and on Twitter.