Latest Launch Brings China Closer to ‘GPS’ of Its Own
At 5:30 on Sunday morning, the Chinese government fired a Long March 3A rocket into orbit. It carried a navigation satellite — the fifth in a planned constellation of 30 or more Beidou orbiters that Beijing hopes will soon rival America’s Global Positioning System.
For years, the U.S. Air Force has owned and operated the system that the rest of the world uses to find its way home, synch its financial transactions (thanks to the GPS timing service), and bring its ships to port. That’s given America a huge military advantage; GPS enables America’s bombs to be targeted with incredible precision. It’s also made other countries nervous: What if the Pentagon decided to mess with the GPS signal in the middle of a war?
Enter Beidou (“Compass”), China’s GPS alternative. “A global positioning system is crucial to any country’s national security and defense,” the Chinese official in charge of the program tells People’s Daily Online. “It is unimaginable for China to go without such a system.”
Sunday’s satellite makes the fifth orbiter in the Beidou constellation, and the third launched this year. Another eight to 10 are supposed to be into space by 2012, providing regional coverage. By 2020, Beidou is supposed to ring the globe.
Which means China can get its own satellite-guided weapons — ones that hit within feet of their target, and stay on track in any weather.
“GPS has become so embedded in much of the world’s day-to-day commerce and activities, it is very unlikely that the U.S. would ever turn off the precision signal. However, given the immense military benefits from such a system, there is a strong motivation for China to develop its own system, under its own control,” says Brian Weeden, a former Air Force Space and Missile officer and a Technical Advisor to the Secure World Foundation.
Beidou is one of three potential GPS competitors currently under construction. The European Union’s Galileo project, which was supposed to have been up and running by 2008, has only managed to put in orbit a couple of test satellites.
Russia had its 24-satellite GLONASS navigation constellation up and running by 1995. Six years later, only six of the satellites were still working, and system was disabled, RBC Daily notes. But Russia has launched a rebuilding effort — one that is just about finished. 21 satellites are now operational, according to the Moscow government. On Friday, Russia that three more will be sent into orbit by September.
In 2008, Moscow opened up GLONASS access to civilians. Russian boss-for-life Vladmir Putin celebrated by giving his black labrador a GLONASS-enabled collar, so he could track the dog’s movements.
“She looks sad,” Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said. “Her free life is over.”
“She is wagging her tail,” Putin answered. “That means she likes it.”
If China starts to depend on its home-grown navigation system, it may actually undermine a key tenet of Beijing’s military planning: to threaten America’s reliance on the fragile GPS constellation. (Remember how China blew up a satellite in 2007?) “As China becomes increasingly reliant and invested in space,” Weeden observes, “it becomes vulnerable to the same sort of asymmetric anti-satellite weapon it used to shock the United States.”
By Noah ShachtmanNewscribe : get free news in real time