Fri, Nov 30, 2018 - Page 9 News List

China’s US$9bn answer to GPS slated to launch globally by 2020

By Bruce Einhorn and Dong Lyu  /  Bloomberg

China is taking its rivalry with the US to the heavens, spending at least US$9 billion to build a celestial navigation system and cut its dependence on the US-operated GPS amid heightening tensions between the two countries.

Location data beamed from GPS satellites are used by smartphones, car navigation systems, the microchip in your dog’s neck and guided missiles — and all those satellites are controlled by the US Air Force. That makes the Chinese government uncomfortable, so it is developing an alternative that a US security analyst called one of the largest space programs the country has undertaken.

“They don’t want to depend on the US’ GPS,” said Marshall Kaplan, a professor in the aerospace engineering department at the University of Maryland. “The Chinese don’t want to be subject to something that we can shut off.”

The BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, currently serving China and its neighbors, is to be accessible worldwide by 2020 as part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) strategy to make his country a global leader in next-generation technologies. Its implementation reverberates through the corporate world as makers of semiconductors, electric vehicles and airplanes modify products to also connect with Beidou to keep doing business in the world’s second-biggest economy.

Assembly of the new constellation is approaching critical mass after the launch of at least 18 satellites this year, including three this month. On Monday last week, China launched two more Beidou machines, increasing the number in operation to more than 40. Beijing plans to add 11 more by 2020.

Beidou is one element of China’s ambitious campaign to displace Western dominance in aerospace. A state-owned company is developing planes to replace those from Airbus and Boeing, and domestic startups are building rockets to challenge the commercial launch businesses of Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin.

Next month, China is scheduled to launch Chang’e 4, a lunar probe that would be the first spacecraft to the far side of the moon. A Mars probe and rover also are scheduled for liftoff in 2020.

“It is classic space race sort of stuff,” said Andrew Dempster, director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research in Canberra.

China started developing Beidou in the 1990s and is to spend an estimated US$8.98 billion to US$10.6 billion on it by 2020, an analysis published last year by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission said.

The system is to provide positioning accuracies of 1m or less with use of a ground support system.

By comparison, GPS typically provides accuracies of less than 2.2m, which can be improved to a few centimeters with augmentation systems, the commission said.

“The Beidou system has become one of the great achievements in China’s 40 years of reform,” Xi said in a Nov. 5 letter to the UN International Committee on Global Navigation Satellite Systems.

The system, named after the Big Dipper star pattern (beidou, 北斗), is at the core of an industry that could generate more than 400 billion yuan (US$57.58 billion) in revenue in 2020, the China Satellite Navigation Office forecast.

Beidou also has potential for export as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the US-China security commission said.

NavInfo, a maker of electronic maps that is backed by Tencent Holdings, wants to begin mass-producing semiconductors for navigation systems using Beidou in 2020, project director Wang Yan said.

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