Russian Positioning, Navigation, and Timing: GLONASS and Mexico

Russian Positioning, Navigation, and Timing: GLONASS and Mexico

An Aside: History Will Teach Us Something

Regarding the Firefly launch in last week’s analysis: its rocket appears to have deployed satellites into a lower orbit than intended. Despite a successful launch and deployment, some would still call it a launch failure. I must point those misguided people to the first Delta IV Heavy launch. The rocket’s upper stage did not perform as expected. According to one article:

“The stage ran out of fuel about two-thirds of the way through the burn, leaving the instrumented satellite simulator payload -- the rocket's main cargo for this test flight -- with an orbit featuring a high point of 19,600 nautical miles (36,400 km), low point of 9,600 nautical miles (19,000 km) and inclination of 13.5 degrees. The orbit's low point was 10,000 miles off the target and inclination was 3.5 degrees higher than planned.”

Despite that 10,000-mile discrepancy, an AIAA report concluded:

“The propellant-loading test series, the flight readiness review process, and contributions from key partners such as the Air Force and the Aerospace Corporation led to a successful inaugural flight of the Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle. This launch represented a remarkable American technological achievement. It demonstrated the next generation heavy-lift vehicle and is currently America’s singular option of a ready heavy-lift capability.”

In other words, it was successful enough for the USAF (although the first launch is widely viewed as a partial failure) and has been launched without incident since that time. Maybe Firefly will fare as well? The USSF seems to believe so.

Also, Astra is feeling some pressure right now.

On to the analysis!!

An article concerning GLONASS is unusual, which is one reason this article caught my attention “MEXICO ENTERS AGREEMENT WITH RUSSIA ON SPACE EXPLORATION, RAISING GLONASS CONCERNS.” There is the typical, perhaps justified, worry that the Russian military is up to something sneaky with GLONASS, Russia’s homegrown space positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) system. Unfortunately, the concerns and the story itself are a bit confusing.


That Mexico is partnering with Russia to host GLONASS ground sites is a little puzzling. However, Russia’s gains from the agreement are clear–that nation needs all the help it can get for its PNT system. According to the article, the Russian embassy in Mexico has confirmed that the agreement:

“...includes the possible installation of Glonass installations to be built in Mexico…”

But what exactly is Mexico getting in return? It’s aligning itself with a nation that is an international pariah. It’s not getting access to a superior PNT system (GPS is the gold standard) with this agreement. Not that it could switch to GLONASS, as many of Mexico’s technologies likely rely on GPS (if its citizens carry smartphones, they certainly do). Why not Europe’s Galileo PNT system?

According to another article, the agreement (using Google translate):

“...creates the legal basis for the development of space cooperation between the two countries and for the practical use of space systems and technologies for peaceful purposes.”

The Mexican government elaborated, but it’s about as opaque:

“ establish and develop equitable and mutually beneficial cooperation between the states of the parties, in the exploration and use of outer space and the practical application of space equipment and technologies. space for peaceful purposes…”

Peaceful purposes aside, that is a weird rationale for what seems to be Mexican government land leases to Russia, and it still doesn’t explain what Mexico gets out of it. The Agencia Espacial Mexicana (AEM–Mexican Space Agency) isn’t quite as active as Roscosmos. Mexico’s commercial space companies and entrepreneurs are less energetic than their European counterparts. It may be that AEM somehow gets its hands on Russian space technology to aid it in its mission (AEM’s are a bit different from NASA’s). However, while using Russian technology might help with its mission, it would also dampen any burgeoning commercial space efforts in that country.

Space Equipment and Technologies?

The space systems referred to could simply be GLONASS (questionable) or Soyuz rockets (doubtful). Before Dmitry Rogozin’s “state supervision” method of governing Russia’s space industry, that nation had several active companies selling Russian space technology to external customers. Unfortunately, Rogozin’s leadership wasn’t kind to the sector he was supposed to serve.

Worse, the embargoes on Russia (resulting from its attack on Ukraine) are impacting its technology sector, including its space industry subset. That situation would likely mean that whatever space systems or technologies Russia could offer Mexico today, there is likely a less expensive and more capable option available (with fewer strings attached). On the other hand, it also may indicate that Russian companies might not be able to manufacture some satellites in a timely, predictable schedule, as their supply chains are not so robust.

However, there is another Russian technology that is concerning to the article’s authors. Several technologies, supposedly. According to the authors, GLONASS satellites host at least two other payloads in addition to the primary PNT payload. One of those other payloads appears to be for signals intelligence purposes (SIGINT). The other is a nuclear detection (NUDET) sensor (which the authors say feeds data to Russia’s nuclear command and control system).

While the article’s authors insert an alarmist spin on GLONASS, it should be noted that it merely highlights Russian technology already deployed in orbit (and has been for decades). To be clear, neither “spying” capability is significantly enhanced through the additional ground stations. The GLONASS ground stations do not have any payloads (I feel I must point this out) and represent no danger to the locals. Also, GPS satellites have NUDET sensors on them. Both Russia and the U.S. use those sensors to keep the other honest (and keep track of other nations fooling around with nuclear weapons). It may be that Russia’s version does feed into that nation’s command and control system.

There may be some kind of transfer of Russian space technology to Mexico. The AEM has previously signed other documents with Russia highlighting cooperative space exploration. And while it may seem like a worthwhile partnership, with Russia’s space industry lagging and its political problems globally, it’s hard to understand why the Mexican government thought doubling down on space partnerships at this time is a great idea.

While Vladimir Putin has said he would like to commercialize GLONASS, Russia’s industry has had difficulty building and deploying newer generations of GLONASS satellites. It also appears not to have the minimum number of functional satellites required for the GLONASS constellation to work optimally (22 are operational when there should be 24). Galileo might have still been the better option. But the European governments tend to be democratic, and Galileo doesn’t have the determined backing of the U.S. or Russian military. It has more of a government public works project feel.

If Mexico wanted to stay the course with undemocratic governments with PNT systems, then China’s BeiDou constellation would have hit all marks. Not only that, but China is investing in its space capabilities and technologies. Its space portfolio is up-to-date, and the nation is an influential space power. For good or bad, the nation’s space projects appear to be beyond the reach of legislative powers, which gives its space programs some stability.

There are also commercial options coming online. They may prove more reliable and accurate than GLONASS or GPS. The initial offerings come from U.S. companies, though, which may be why the Mexican government didn’t approach those companies. In addition, at least one of the commercial options is not yet operational, which may also account for dismissal from consideration.

Still… the Mexican government must be getting something out of the agreement. The story inadvertently highlights U.S. failures of politics and diplomacy with its southern neighbor. The U.S. could have helped that nation foster a vibrant indigenous space economy. Instead, the Mexican government chose Russia. But whatever it’s truly getting out of the agreement and why the Mexican government thinks partnering with Russia is a great idea remain as unanswered questions.