Beijing, China, 3 February 2007 – On February 3, China successfully launched a ‘multi-purpose’ navigation satellite into orbit, taking a step forward in its drive to develop a positioning system intended to eventually rival Washington’s GPS and Europe’s Galileo.
The satellite – Beidou (Big Dipper) – is China’s fourth navigation experimental satellite in orbit. The previous three were sent in space on October 31, 2000; December 21, 2000 and May 25, 2003 respectively.
The satellite was propelled by a carrier rocket, Long March 3-A, which blasted off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China’s Sichuan Province at 0:28am. The satellite separated from the rocket about 24 minutes later. Data from the Xi’an satellite monitoring center showed that the satellite had accurately entered its orbit.
According to a Chinese newspaper, an official said, “The Beidou satellite navigation experimental system is operating well and has played a significant role in cartography, telecommunications, water conservation, transportation, fishery, prospecting, forest fire monitoring and national security.”
The satellite and carrier rocket were developed respectively by the China Academy of Space Technology and China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, which are under the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, he said. The launch represents the 95th flight of China’s Long March series of rockets.
This launch comes weeks after China prompted expressions of concern from the US by destroying one of its own ageing meteorological satellites with a missile-launched “kinetic kill vehicle”.
China’s plans for its satellite navigation system – known in English as “Compass” – have been shrouded in secrecy, with officials repeatedly declining to comment on their intentions. However, this launch appears to be an effort to augment a relatively imprecise system based on three Beidou satellites launched between 2000 and 2003.
In a rare public discussion of Beijing’s plans, the official Xinhua news agency had said in November that two geostationary satellites would be launched early this year, allowing the system to cover all of China and parts of neighbouring countries by 2008.
The Beidou system would expand to offer global coverage with the creation of a constellation of 30 medium Earth orbit satellites, Xinhua said. The agency gave no timing for this part of the system, similar to the GPS [Global Positioning System] built by the US and Europe’s Galileo satellite network.
More precise positioning would be an important asset for China’s armed forces. Some analysts have suggested the expanded Beidou system will use the same radio frequencies as Galileo and possibly GPS, making it more difficult for adversaries to jam the network in case of war.
Beidou’s development could pose a challenge to the commercial success of Galileo. While China is a partner of the Galileo project and the government and companies are investing €200m ($260m) with related facilities and research into commercial applications, it is shaping up as a potential competitor.
The Chinese embassy in Brussels said it was committed to the project to improve political ties, learn from European know-how and provide greater competition. Xinhua said in November that Beijing would provide open access to Beidou signals allowing positioning accuracy within 10m.
Operation of the €3bn-plus Galileo, which will has 30 satellites, has been postponed until 2011 because of technical problems and delays in the public-private partnership needed to build it.