China on Tuesday successfully put into orbit its final Beidou satellite, completing a navigation network years in the making and setting the stage to challenge the US-owned Global Positioning System (GPS).
The idea to develop Beidou, or the Big Dipper in Chinese, took shape in the 1990s as China’s military sought to reduce its reliance on GPS, which is run by the US Air Force.
Coverage was limited to China when the first Beidou-1 satellites were launched in 2000. Now Beidou-related services such as traffic monitoring have been exported to about 120 countries.
As use of mobile devices expanded, China in 2003 tried to join the Galileo satellite navigation project proposed by the European Union but later pulled out to focus on Beidou.
The second generation of Beidou-2 satellites went into operation in 2012, covering the Asia-Pacific region.
In 2015, China began deploying the third generation of Beidou-3 satellites aimed at global coverage. The one launched on Tuesday was the 35th Beidou-3 satellite – with analysts looking at the system’s reliability and how it is rolled out.
“The civil signal from Beidou is no better than GPS or Galileo,” said Alexandra Stickings, a research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, a Britain-based think-tank.
“From a defence perspective, it is difficult to say whether Beidou is superior. One hurdle that will have to be faced will be upgrading receivers across military platforms, which will take time.”
Many countries using Beidou services are involved in the Belt and Road initiative spearheaded by China to create a modern-day Silk Road of trade and investment.
“This may prove popular among Belt and Road countries, particularly those who may wish to be less dependent upon the US GPS system,” said Stickings.
“However, Beidou will need to prove its reliability and ability to provide a consistent signal to gain the trust of users in the same way that GPS is trusted globally.”