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Beidou Satellite Positioning System

China's Bold Plans for Space


The United States' global positioning system (GPS) is a demonstration of its vast national power. Now China wants in on the act too, relentlessly pursuing its own Beidou project. What changes will this new grand struggle in space bring?



China's Bold Plans for Space

By Hsien-Shen Wen
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 426 )

The United States' global positioning system operates through a web of 28 satellites orbiting the Earth, providing precise navigation information for automobiles, commercial and recreational maritime vessels, aircraft, military weapons systems and even individual travelers, and stands as an icon of personal convenience, commercial opportunity and the awe-inspiring extent of American national power. In the next 10 years or so, China will have established a similar system of its own.

GPS Battle on 4 Fronts

Since ancient times people have relied on the Big Dipper – the seven brightest stars of the constellation Ursa Major – for navigation. Now China has chosen Beidou (the Chinese word for the Big Dipper) as the name of its own satellite positioning system. In addition to China's Beidou and America's GPS, Russia is working to complete its Glonass system, and the European Union is planning its own Galileo system. Down the road, a four-front battle will emerge among these four powers.

For Taiwan and other countries in the region, Beidou represents both an opportunity and a threat.

Similar to the American GPS, the Beidou Satellite Navigation and Positioning System, when successfully in place, will yield enormous benefits for China's people and economy, as the country's communications and navigations systems industries develop. But China's People's Liberation Army will also gain independent global positioning capabilities and will undoubtedly make widespread application of this technology in precision guided offensive weapons systems.

China's global positioning system will operate through a web of more than 30 satellites orbiting the Earth. In accordance with the principle of "today the region, tomorrow the world," the system in its initial phase will launch around 10 navigational satellites into orbit to provide positioning services for the Asia-Pacific region and China. Between 2015 and 2020, additional satellites will be placed in orbit to complete a global system (to be called Compass).

To realize their ambitions, China has launched a number of experimental Beidou 1 satellites into orbit since 2000 to provide positioning information for the fishing industry, transportation sector, weather forecasting, cartographers and military applications. As of the end of last year, the experimental system boasted more than 40,000 clients.

Since 2007, China has commenced launches of its new generation Beidou 2 navigational satellites, without the tag "experimental," indicating that China's global positioning system technology has reached maturity.

Mammoth Market Potential

Fan Benyao, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Space Technology involved in the Beidou project, has previously stated that with China's current levels of satellite technology, it is able to place two Beidou satellites in Earth orbit within a margin of error of just a few centimeters, a crucial capability in the construction of a completely reliable satellite network.

The biggest difference between the previous generation Beidou system and the American GPS was that clients had to transmit signals to the Chinese satellites, and had to pass through relatively complex ground station signal processing. The new generation Beidou overcomes this functional bottleneck, and signaling to the satellite is now optional, depending on the client's requirements.

The new Beidou satellites' advantage over GPS lies in the control stations' ability to process clients' pre-set global marks and communicate with clients through text messaging, so the control stations can conveniently manage the actual position information of ships, planes, trains, cars and other modes of transport as well as the organization and movement of military units.

During the rescue efforts following the Sichuan earthquake last year, rescue workers in quake-stricken mountainous regions, where communications links had been cut off, made extensive use of the experimental Beidou system to transmit rescue information, greatly aiding in the organization, management and direction of rescue resources.

Chinese satellite technology is not necessarily considered better than its American, Russian or EU counterparts, but its 1.3 billion-strong market, its totally centralized policymaking mechanism, and its design innovations still give it enormous market potential.

China already ranks as the world's largest shipping market, automobile market and mobile communications market. With the completion of its Beidou global positioning system, it will be able to use advantageous regulation of navigation technology standards in its domestic market to create an enormous industrial chain and a potent new source of growth, with reasonable prospects for success.

China has formulated its own global mobile communications standard, TD-SCDMA. With the assistance of companies such as China Mobile and Huawei, service packages with Beidou applications have already been designed. With the completion of the Beidou system, TD-SCDMA will no longer be completely subservient to the American GPS.

In addition to construction of the Beidou system, China has also participated in construction of the EU's Galileo system, investing more than 200 million euros in the project. But to date China continues to feel shut out in terms of acquiring European technology, adding further impetus to its determination to develop the Beidou system. A definite degree of autonomy in terms of major strategic resources and technologies dovetails with China's longstanding national policies.

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy

Chinese Version: 中國「北斗計劃」 太空新霸權