The satellite space race

By Liu Sha Source:Global Times Published: 2012-10-18 23:25:10


A CZ-3C rocket blasts off and sends a <a href=Beidou navigation satellite into orbit on April 15, 2009. Photo: CFP" src="">
A CZ-3C rocket blasts off and sends a Beidou navigation satellite into orbit on April 15, 2009. Photo: CFP

On Monday, three days after the European Union's global navigation satellite system (GNSS) Galileo launched its second pair of satellites, China announced that its own navigation system, Beidou, or Compass, would soon launch its 16th satellite and aim to provide free civilian service in the Asia-pacific area.

Despite previously being heavily invested in the Galileo project, China has pulled away to set up its own independent satellite system. Tensions have been high between China and the EU with both wanting to use the same signal frequencies, but Chinese observers appear confident that the Chinese network is pulling ahead of its European competitor.

According to Xinhua, the Beidou navigation system will form a constellation of 35 satellites by 2020, when it will be able to compete with the US' Global Positioning System (GPS) and Russia's Global Navigation Satellite System.

Yang Qiangwen, chief engineer at the China Satellite Navigation Office, told China National Radio that Galileo won't be completed by 2014 as initially planned, and that the four current Galileo satellites are just test satellites.

"Not needing to rely on the US' GPS system is very important for national security, and the EU has definitely been lagging behind. China was a cooperative partner of the EU's Galileo project and tried to learn from it, but now Beidou's progress has surpassed it," said Huang Jun, a professor at the School of Aeronautic Science and Engineering, at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Mixed signals

According to an agreement reached last month, China and the EU will meet again before the end of 2012 to discuss the signal from the Beidou-II system and whether it will overlap with the "Public Regulated Service" signals that Galileo plans to use.

"It may be a last-ditch attempt to resolve an issue that has been a thorn in the side of Europe's Galileo satellite navigation program for years," the US website Space News commented.

The commentary said that the EU had spent a long time talking with the US to reach a deal that would allow them to use that frequency, but it was now being used by China.

China joined the Galileo program in 2003 and promised to offer 230 million euro ($301.1 million), but later found itself locked out of the decision-making process or technology development, prompting China to explore the creation of its own satellite projects.

Peter Gutierrez, a European correspondent from the magazine Inside GNSS, said in his report earlier this month that China felt that it had been mistreated after having paid for the privilege of joining the Galileo consortium as a partner, only to be shut out of its governing bodies.

China has insisted that Beidou obeys the rules of the UN's International Telecommunication Union (ITU), saying that the first nation to start broadcasting in a specific band gets priority and China launched its satellite first, the Global Times reported earlier.

Jean-Michel Fobe, president of Belgium's Eutralex Aerospace, told the Inside GNSS magazine that "The Chinese government sets its priorities and makes the decisions, not like here in Europe, where 27 different opinions have to be brought together before we can do anything."

A retired teacher with the Second Artillery Engineering University of the People's Liberation Army surnamed Song told the Global Times that "some Europeans have called it an act of 'revenge' by China, but we just followed the rules of 'first come, first served' that were set by the ITU,"

According to Song, the overlapping signals would not affect the normal operations, but during a conflict, if someone wanted to jam Beidou, they would also have to jam Galileo's signals. Besides, the frequency bandwidth is limited and the US and Russia have taken the best, leaving the second-best frequencies to other countries.

Money talks

Although the EU has been urging China to solve the issues surrounding the frequency overlap, it might soon realize that the Galileo navigation system no longer qualifies as a genuine competitor, especially when viewed on a financial footing, according to Song, and he's not the only one expressing this view.

"Inside the EU there are many different opinions, especially during this period. Most of them have been distracted by the economic crisis and the EU needs financial support from China, so it is hard to say how loudly they would speak when talking about the overlapping frequency issue," said Zhang Shengjun, deputy director of the School of Political Sciences and International Studies at Beijing Normal University.

Zhang told Global Times that the lingering crisis may not only reduce the amount of negotiation between the EU and China, but that the Galileo project may run into speed bumps due to financial problems.

The European Commission Vice President has said that there is still a long way to go before it becomes a fully operational system, but they were confident that they would build the "most sophisticated satellite navigation system," according to the European Commission's press release on October 12.

Wider usage

According to news reports and video footage, Beidou terminals have been widely used in the People's Liberation Army, however, it is still no match for the US GPS network in terms of civilian use. According to the Xinhua News Agency, it is estimated that 95 percent of the navigation system terminals are GPS receivers. However, police forces have been gaining greater access to the network, with police in Beijing using the Beidou  to monitor security during the 18th National Party Congress of the Communist Party of China in November, according to the China News Service.

Fu Li, a professor from the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics who has been studying different navigations systems, agreed its use is still limited but argued that Beidou possessed the advantage of bi-directional communication via text messages.

"Beidou's market is limited, but I guess there will be some administrative policies to ensure the profitability of Beidou in the future," a source inside China's aerospace industry told the Global Times in a previous interview.

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