China launches final Beidou satellite in its navigation network

The decades-long project sees a constellation of 35 satellites circling the Earth to rival the US-owned Global Positioning System (GPS)

A Long March 3B rocket carrying a  final Beidou satellite at  the Xichang satellite launch centre in Xichang, Sichuan province, on June 23th, 2020.  Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

A Long March 3B rocket carrying a final Beidou satellite at the Xichang satellite launch centre in Xichang, Sichuan province, on June 23th, 2020. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

 

China has launched into orbit its final Beidou satellite, completing a decades-long project to establish a domestically-developed navigation network to challenge the US-owned Global Positioning System (GPS).

The final satellite in the Beidou system was launched from Xichang in Sichuan province on Tuesday, and has joined a constellation of 35 satellites that circle the Earth in three different orbits.

The launch of the five-tonne satellite was postponed for a week after technical issues were detected during pre-launch tests on the Long March-3B carrier rocket.

The system, which cost an estimated €8.8 billion and has military and civilian applications, will provide global coverage and competes with the American GPS system, the European Union’s Galileo and Russia’s Glonass.

Chinese state media said the Beidou system was more accurate than GPS, which is run by the US air force, and has more capacity for two-way messaging.

The latest iteration in the programme began providing global coverage for timing and navigation services in 2018, and China’s transportation, agriculture, electric and fisheries industry have already adopted the system.

It has also been introduced to about 120 countries around the world as a China-made alternative to the dominant US system, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

The Beidou programme – which means the Plough constellation, also known as the Big Dipper, in Chinese – has launched 55 satellites over the past two decades, with some already decommissioned.

Reports suggest development was spurred after the loss of two missiles fired across the Taiwan Straits in 1996 as warning shots to the self-ruled island’s pro-independence movement, with Chinese scientists believing the missile failures could have been caused by disruptions to the GPS system.

Space power

The successful launch is the latest milestone in China’s efforts to become a major space power, part of a wider national initiative to invest heavily in homegrown high-tech systems.

Its current space exploration projects include plans for a permanent space station, a manned flight to the moon and sending a rover to Mars.

The satellite launch comes as tensions are running high across the region. Beijing and Washington are at loggerheads over a number of issues, including China’s lack of transparency in the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak and its continued crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

On other fronts China has in recent weeks ramped up its military presence and activity around disputed islands with Japan, through the Taiwan Straits and across the South China Sea.

And last week at least 20 Indian troops were killed in clashes with Chinese forces in the Galwan valley, a contested border area high in the Himalayan mountain range that separates the two nuclear powers.