China commits to Compass satnav project

 - March 7, 2007, 12:33 PM

In a statement that surprised Western observers, China announced late last year that it will launch its own 35-satellite, GPS-like global navigation system over the next several years. Thirty of these satellites will fly in medium-earth orbits at around 12,000 miles altitude, similar to that of GPS, while the remaining five will be equally spaced around the equator in WAAS-like geostationary orbits and perform a similar service.

Chinese officials stated that the system’s signals would be “open” and free
of charge to users, who could expect worldwide positioning accuracy within 10 meters. It is understood that the Chinese military would have access to higher accuracies via encrypted signals.

As reported previously in AIN, since 2002 China has been using a small number of geostationary satellites for military navigation purposes, under the generic name of Beidou (Mandarin for the Big Dipper constellation, which points to the North Star). For the worldwide system, China has adopted the westernized name “Compass.” The program has a reported initial budget of around $2 billion, versus the $2.5 billion estimated for Europe’s Galileo satnav system.

Earlier this year China invested $200 million in Galileo, leading Western observers to assume that the country had dropped any ambitions it had about developing its own global satellite system. It appears that Galileo officials accepted the investment but refused China’s wish to become a full consortium member, thereby limiting its involvement in the system’s technical development. Instead, the Europeans assured China of “participation” in the follow-on Galileo Supervisory Authority. That decision is seen as the impetus for China’s new initiative.

“In hindsight, that was a dumb move by the Europeans,” one senior U.S. official told AIN, “although we didn’t expect it, either. What’s more, $200 million is peanuts to the Chinese, who now have an inside ticket to follow Galileo’s progress, and can apply all the lessons learned to their own program.”

In Beijing, the People’s Daily newspaper echoed that notion in its own inimitable style, breathlessly exulting that “…the research and application of the Chinese satellite navigation system by the superiority of gaining mastery from late development will go ahead by leaps and bounds as promoted by great potentials in the market.”

The domestic Chinese market alone, with its booming economy and current population of around 1.3 billion, could be immense, and one that, until now, the Galileo consortium felt it had captured.

It also turns out that the Europeans erred in believing that China never planned to do more than launch a few local Beidou space vehicles. Reportedly, China’s original application to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) for Beidou radio frequencies clearly mentioned a future expansion to a 35-satellite system. But it appears that at the time, no one took it seriously.

There seems to be no doubt that China has the capability to develop its Compass system. But from the limited information available so far, there could be some real challenges ahead–for the U.S. and Europe– arising from the satellite frequencies China plans to use. China’s frequency filings indicate that its frequencies could overlay both Galileo’s Public Regulated Service and the highly encrypted military GPS M-Code, where attempts to jam Compass would jam both the others. One specialist told AIN that this could be a key Chinese bargaining chip in the tough negotiations that are expected at the ITU’s World Radiocommunications Conference late this year.

More Satellite Programs Planned
China is not alone in planning an expansion of its satellite-navigation capabilities. The Chinese announcement overshadowed a July statement by India that it would build a domestic positioning network using nine satellites, and forecast to cost $350 million, that would be augmented by the U.S.-designed WAAS system it is now installing. The Indian system, which is not yet named, will be compatible with GPS.

China has yet to make that commitment. It has been suggested that with Galileo, Russia’s Glonass, Japan’s QZSS and JRANS and India’s system planning to offer GPS-compatible signals, China could opt for a slightly different signal structure to exclusively capture its very large future domestic market and its military needs, while allowing foreign aircraft to use other nations’ satnavs in its airspace.

Satellite industry data indicates that, in fact, civil aviation use has long been outstripped by terrestrial applications, as technology and competition have relentlessly reduced unit sizes and manufacturing costs.

To ensure that his country would not be left behind in the industry’s promotional hype for that future market, Russian Space Agency spokesman Igor Panarin recently adopted a distinctly American approach. In extolling the capabilities of Glonass, he forecast that “…every housewife will be able to place a portable satellite navigator on her dog’s collar so that she can know where her pet is at any given moment.” That’s hardly what U.S. Air Force researchers had in mind when sketching out the original concept of GPS in the 1950s, but it does show what a changing world we live in.