It looked as though China stepped up the game to challenge the US, or at least US space-supremacy, at the end of last month when it launched another satellite in its second-generation Compass Navigation Satellite System (CNSS), also by the name of Beidou-2.
The Beidou-2 Compass-G4 satellite is the sixth of the 35 that are planned to orbit the earth in 2020, giving China worldwide navigation coverage. Although China has been working on satellite navigation since the early 2000s, it is only now that its capabilities are catching up with other global navigation and positioning players.
Europe is fast at work on its navigation-system Galileo and Russia has the Global Navigation Satellite System, known as GLONASS. The US is still a world-leader with its Global Positioning System (GPS), in use since the 1970s when it was first developed for the US military.
Does CNSS signal the end of GPS-dominance? Chen Wu of the Department of Land Surveying and Geo-Informatics at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University doesn’t think CNSS will pose a challenge to other systems. “The [different positioning systems] have been around for years. When China has Beidou-2, they’ll all complement each other,” he says.
But it’s clear that being able to navigate itself, and particularly not having to rely on US equipment to do so, is in line with China’s ambitions to play it big on the global stage while also strengthening national security at home.
The majority of modern weapons’ systems rely on GPS to function. Clearly Beijing thinks it’s better that the People’s Liberation Army uses a Chinese navigation-programme rather than GPS, should it ever need to launch a precision-strike.
And it’s not just the Chinese military that will benefit from the new system – everything from meteorology to oil and petroleum prospecting, from disaster forecasting to the telecoms-industry and straightforward navigation of the sea, road and air rely on satellite positioning.
One vital ingredient for marketing CNSS is missing, however; China hasn’t released the decoding files needed to decipher the satellite signal in order to make the system commercially viable and globally user-friendly.
“I’m not sure why the Chinese government hasn’t released the codes yet. It may be that the satellite has some technical problem and it’s too early to release the information. The other possibility is that they don’t want competition. But I think they’ll release the codes sometimes early next year, otherwise people can’t use the system,” says Wu.
It would be a wasted opportunity not to make the system commercially available around the world, not least for China’s home-grown navigation product developers. As it stands now, a few thousand fishermen navigate the South China Sea with the first generation CNSS-system. Surely China is angling for much bigger fish than that.