China launches Beidou satellite, aims for completion of navigation network in May

A Long March 3B rocket lifted off Monday with a Beidou navigation satellite. Credit: Xinhua

A Chinese Long March 3B launcher carried a Beidou satellite into orbit Monday, adding the penultimate satellite to China’s independent navigation fleet before another mission in May completes the constellation to give it a global reach.

The Beidou navigation payload rocketed into space at 1155 GMT (7:55 a.m. EDT; 7:55 p.m. Beijing time) Monday from the Xichang space center in southwestern China’s Sichuan province, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

A 184-foot-tall (56-meter) Long March 3B rocket delivered the Beidou navigation satellite into an elliptical, or egg-shaped, geosynchronous transfer orbit. China’s government-owned media declared the launch a success.

China has launched 54 Beidou satellites since 2000, but the launch date has ramped up in recent years. The initial generation of Beidou satellites were designed as prototypes or test platforms, but the Chinese network began limited service over the Asia-Pacific region in 2012.

Chinese officials said the successful launch Monday and a follow-up launch in May will complete the deployment of the Beidou program’s third-generation, or BDS-3, satellite network.

All of the early Beidou satellites have ended their missions, and the Beidou fleet needs 30 satellites for operational global positioning and timing services.

Until now, Chinese military forces have relied on the U.S. military’s Global Positioning System for navigation support.

China designed the Beidou network as an independent version of the GPS network, providing Chinese military and civilian users with a home-grown system in case GPS signals are interrupted during a conflict. Like the GPS network, Russia’s Glonass fleet and Europe’s Galileo navigation constellation, the Beidou system is designed for global service.

The Beidou navigation satellite launched Monday will use its own propulsion system to maneuver into a circular geosynchronous orbit more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers) over the equator.

Chinese officials said engineers “have overcome difficulties during the novel coronavirus epidemic to ensure the success of the mission,” according to state media.

The Beidou network, named for the Chinese word for the Big Dipper constellation, includes satellites positioned in three different types of orbits.

In December, China launched the last of 24 operational satellites into a medium-altitude orbit more than 13,000 miles above Earth, similar to the orbits used by GPS, Glonass and Galileo satellites.

But unlike the other global navigation systems, the fully-operational Beidou network will include six spacecraft in geosynchronous orbits, with three permanently over the equator and three others in inclined orbits that swing north and south of the equator during each 24-hour orbit.

China launched three satellites into inclined geosynchronous orbit last year, and the spacecraft deployed Monday is the second of three to be permanently stationed over the equator.

The satellite launched Monday was built by the China Academy of Space Technology, part of China’s government-owned aerospace industry, and is based on the DFH-3B satellite platform.

The Beidou satellites “can provide services for the driverless vehicles, accurate berthing of ships, as well as takeoff and landing of airplanes,” Xinhua said. “It will be widely used in the fields of communication, electric power, finance, mapping, transportation, fishery, agriculture and forestry.”

The Beidou satellites also have a communications relay ability.

Chinese smartphones already have the ability to incorporate Beidou navigation data into mapping and tracking apps, and users in dozens of other countries are also using Beidou signals.

China wants to expand usage of the Beidou network worldwide, especially in countries participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a global economic development program and a centerpiece of Beijing’s foreign policy strategy. The Belt and Road Initiative has extended to nearly 70 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, Africa, Europe and the Americas, where China partners with local authorities to fund infrastructure and other drivers of economic growth.

Pakistan’s armed forces, which used to rely on U.S. GPS satellites, is the only military outside China to employ the Beidou network.

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