China has a navigation service that is touted to be a GPS for civilian use, but the camouflage tactic isn’t working. The Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) based in the United States (GPS) hasn’t been to China’s liking. For ten years, they have been developing their own system, BeiDou, or the Big Dipper, to reduce their military’s dependence on the technology of other countries.

BeiDou-1 Coverage Map. By 2020, two expansion stages will expand coverage to cover the planet
BeiDou-1 Coverage Map. By 2020, two expansion stages will expand coverage to cover the planet

Right now, China has a mixed bag of ten satellites in orbit: Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) and Inclined Geosynchronous Satellite Orbit (IGSO). The GEO’s are positioned at 58.75°E, 80°E, 110.5°E, 140°E and 160°E. The first crop were regional in focus. Next year, six satellites will go up providing coverage for most of Asia-Pacific. By 2020, they plan to have 35 satellites delivering world-wide coverage.

Besides providing location, timing, navigation data and short messaging capabilities to Chinese citizens, there has been speculation over the years as to what else BeiDou could facilitate. MIT researchers as early as 2004 put forth a "what if" paper that stated:

"While the Chinese BeiDou navigation system does not appear to be capable of the precision needed for terrestrial military uses, it does have a potential to assist with the navigation of China’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM)."

It could target cruise missiles at Taiwan for example, a continuing thorn in China’s side. More recent analysis holds that if China were the target, BeiDou possibly could guide drones to attack naval threats.

Ran Chengqi discusses BeiDou Navigation System with reporters

Ran Chengqi discusses BeiDou Navigation System with reporters

The Chinese held a press conference about the BeiDou Navigation System ( ?????? ) during which Ran Chengqi, BeiDou satellite navigation system spokesman and Zhao Xiaojin, Minister for China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation communicated their stance. They have placed their beta Interface Control Document online to encourage outside research and development to facilitate wider use of BeiDou. Eventually, they expect industries such as automotive, telecommunications, and fishing to benefit from its capabilities.

China intends to cooperate with other countries by participating actively in the International Committee on Global Navigation Satellite Systems, referred to as the ICG, which advocates establishment of the United Nations intergovernmental informal organization.

China thinks that having an independent satellite navigation system will promote national economic and social development. Chengqi stated that BeiDou "can significantly enhance the country’s scientific, technological, economic and industrial power, a sign of great-power status and the comprehensive national strength of a country. Satellite navigation is also a national strategic emerging industry, on the national economy [it] is a new economic growth point." He sees the program conjoined with national space weather monitoring to provide early warnings and thereby reduce disaster damage.

The world is encircled by navigation satellites. American GPS is not the only one, as the European Union’s Galileo satellites launched by Soyuz from Europe’s Spaceport in October are just now sending test signals. Russia operates GLONASS (GLObal NAvigation Satellite System) which consists of 21 satellites in 3 orbital planes, with 3 on-orbit spares. The first was launched as early as 1982, but the network was not declared fully operational by the President of the Russian Federation until 1993. BeiDou, Chengqi claims, is unique in that it combines text messaging and navigation.

Lockheed Martin Artist Rendition of GPS III Satellite. Credit: Lockheed Martin
Lockheed Martin Artist Rendition of GPS III Satellite

In the US, Lockheed Martin is busy delivering a prototype of GPS III for the US Air Force, obviously intended for military use, as well as for civilian purposes. It not only provides precision weapon guidance, it supports civil, scientific and commercial functions, such as air traffic control, ATM banking, and the Internet.

The GPS III has a 15 year design life, increased security making it more difficult for enemies to jam, three times more accuracy and power for greater penetration, and a better civilian signal (L1C) for interoperability with international global navigation satellite systems. Lockheed claims a position accuracy of less than one meter. Ran Chengqi cited specifications of China’s BeiDou as "positioning accuracy is Planar 25 meters, height of 30 meters; speed accuracy is 0.4 m/s and timing precision is 50 nanoseconds."

As to Lockheed Martin’s project, since the US, along with Europe, is having a debt crisis, meeting a budget estimate of $25 billion going into 2025 might be a stretch. Keoki Jackson, Lockheed Martin’s GPS III program director said:

"The government and industry GPS III team… [is] constantly searching for ways to reduce costs while ensuring we deliver the most reliable, capable GPS satellite ever."


The Chinese proclamation differs little from that of its US counterpart, Lockheed. Zhao Xiaojin said:

"Through continuous technological and management innovations, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation expects efficient and reliable on-time completion of  the development of satellites and launch vehicles."

To learn more about the plans for BeiDou, view the Chinese press conference here.