China has launched ten satellites that will make up a geo-positioning network designed as an alternative to GPS. While compatible with existing technology, Beidou is intended to make sure China isn’t reliant on foreign systems.
The new system currently provides coverage in China itself. The timetable is for another six satellites next year to extend that across most of Asia, with the system expanding to 35 satellites by 2020 to offer global coverage.
The first Chinese satellite designed for operation rather than testing went up in 2007; today’s announcement is simply that the network is now operational and providing positioning details.
Beidou, which very roughly translates as “Big Dipper” is not as accurate as GPS, offering location tracking to within 10 meters compared with within 10 feet on existing GPS. Indeed, a planned upgrade to GPS will get that range down to three feet. As with GPS, Beidou can also track speed of movement and give ultra-accurate time signals.
China has published details of the technical specifications behind the new system and says it will be interoperable with other systems worldwide, including both the US-operated GPS andRussia’s Glonass network. Both Chinese and foreign companies will be able to access the Beidou technology and officials forecast a 400 billion yuan (approx $60 billion) market for applications that use it.
The real fear for Western governments will be that the new network strengthens the Chinese military. There are suggestions that if a local war broke out, China could use geo-positioning to guide missiles, and the last resort option of switch GPS coverage off would no longer be effective.