Satellite Wars: China unveils ‘cheaper’ answer to GPS

Another BeiDou satellite goes up (Photo from user Beidou Navigation System)

Another BeiDou satellite goes up (Photo from user Beidou Navigation System)

China’s rapidly-expanding rival to GPS, called BeiDou, has become available to customers across Asia-Pacific for the first time. It aims to claim a fifth of the satellite services market in the region in just three years.

Previously, the satellite constellation was only used by the country’s military and government services. Now, it is being commercialized.

“The services now available include positioning, navigation, timing and short messages for China and surrounding areas. We hope BeiDou conquers 15 to 20 percent of the satellite services market in the Asia Pacific by 2015,” BeiDou spokesman Ran Chengqi announced at a press conference in Beijing, reported by Xinhua news agency.

China says that as it expands worldwide, the state-funded navigation system will bring in revenues of more than $60 billion a year.

At the moment, a user receiving BeiDou’s signal can determine their position to within ten meters. Most civilian GPS users are given positional data that is out by no more than 2 meters, but BeiDou’s makers say their services will be much cheaper than those of the US-government owned GPS.

BeiDou, which is the Chinese term for the Big Dipper star, is also expanding at an impressive rate, meaning it will soon be able to bridge the performance gap.

While GPS has been active since the 1970s, and has satellites in orbit that have been operating for two decades, BeiDou launched the first of its current generation satellites only five years ago.

GPS comprises 30 satellites, while BeiDou already has over fifteen, and is going to have another forty in orbit by the time the network is complete in 2020, at the cost of another $6 billion, according to Ran. The greater the number of satellites, the easier it is for the system to calculate location, time and velocity of moving objects.

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