China building $9-billion Beidou to challenge American-owned GPS

By: | Published: November 27, 2018 1:15 AM

On November 19, China launched two more Beidou machines, increasing the number in operation to over 40.

Operations at NavInfo as China develops next generation of digital maps. (Bloomberg photo)

China is taking its rivalry with the US to the heavens, spending at least $9 billion to build a celestial navigation system and cut its dependence on the American-owned 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’s developing an alternative that a US security analyst calls one of the largest space programs the country has undertaken. “They don’t want to depend on the US’s 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 System, currently serving China and neighbors, will be accessible worldwide by 2020 as part of President Xi Jinping’s 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 in order to keep doing business in the 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 November 19, China launched two more Beidou machines, increasing the number in operation to over 40. China 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 firm is developing planes to replace those from Airbus and Boeing, and domestic start-ups are building rockets to challenge the commercial-launch businesses of Elon Musk’s SpaceX 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.

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