Beijing sees political and commercial pay-offs with global navigation system
In the darkest hour before sunrise on April 14, a Long March rocket lifted off from the Xichang space centre in Sichuan , carrying Beijing's ambitions for its rapidly developing space-based navigation system.
On board was the first satellite in its ambitious Compass global positioning system, designed to beam times, positions and navigation signals from an orbit altitude of 21,000km.
When it is complete, before 2017, the 35-satellite constellation will offer military and civilian users real-time services that, at the moment, are dominated by the Global Positioning System (GPS) controlled by the US Department of Defence.
Compass will become the world's fourth global navigation satellite system after GPS, Russia's Glonass and the European Union's Galileo operations.
Apart from delivering political, commercial and technological payoffs for the mainland, it is believed the project could be an answer to the kinds of problems that occurred last year when the United States shut down GPS signals during a mainland military exercise, paralysing many guided weapons.
The mainland has been developing satellite positioning expertise since 2000 from a trial network that consists of four geostationary orbit satellites that hover above the nation and its neighbouring countries.
It also has been taking part in the EU's Galileo project since 2004, contributing not only Euro200 million (HK$2.12 billion) but also research and development of some key technology. For Beijing, Galileo offers the chance to gain valuable experience and expertise in space technology as it tries to pursue its independent satellite programme.
China Research Institute of Radiowave Propagation researcher Cao Chong said the Europeans were outraged in late 2006 when they heard the mainland planned to send up 35 global positioning satellites of its own. The Europeans offered to share Galileo's military-grade guiding and positioning services if Beijing cancelled the launch, 'but China refused'.
'Today big nations in the world are eager to establish their own navigation guiding systems,' he said. 'And the game's rules change each time a new player comes in.'
The US had been developing GPS since the 1960s, but it did not offer free civilian services until 1992 when Russia announced plans to commercialise Glonass. However, the US also artificially degraded global positioning accuracy available to civilian users until 2000, when the EU declared it would develop Galileo.
'The US promised to offer comprehensive GPS access to EU countries,' Professor Cao said. 'But the Europeans refused partly because of military concerns, partly out of business interests and partly out of pride.
'We are living in an age where more than 60 per cent of information is about time and location. Having your own timing and positioning system is not only a matter of independence; it is also a matter of influence and dominance.'
He estimates there are 49 functioning global navigation satellites aloft today - 30 GPS, 17 Glonass, one Galileo and one Compass. Within a decade, there will be more than 100 such satellites circling above.
'These systems are very similar in terms of precision and functionalities; even their communication frequencies overlap ... 60 [satellites] will be more than we need,' he said.
Professor Cao said it was unlikely that a fifth system would join in because the frequency resources allocated by the International Telecommunication Union for satellite positioning communications already had been taken up by the four players.
'It is part of the reason why China has worked with haste,' he said. 'The world will live with the four systems for the foreseeable future.'
While Compass and Galileo are still under construction, GPS and Glonass are fully functioning. The American satellites often exceed their designated life spans but the Russian Glonass equipment usually falls short of theirs. The critical issue, according to Chen Jingbiao, is the satellites' atomic clocks.
Professor Chen, the Peking University Institute of Quantum Electrics professor in charge of the Key Laboratory of Quantum Information and Measurement, said the atomic clock was the heart of a navigation satellite.
The clock's quality determines the satellite's precision level because the equipment uses time to calculate length and give location. In space, gravity shifts from the moon and tides destabilise the clocks and weaken their durability.
He said his team received 25 million yuan in 2005 to develop atomic clocks for the Compass satellites. The clocks used in Compass are capable of guiding a missile to hit an office desk anywhere in the world and, with more funding coming, a project is under way to increase that precision by more than 1,000 times.
'Atomic clocks are the finest measuring tools invented by humans, and they are the basis of fundamental research,' Professor Chen said.
'A number of recent Nobel laureates in physics have made their contributions at least partly because they have the finest clocks available, and I believe future breakthroughs will still depend on them.'
Building a satellite navigation system is not cheap - which is why India has been talking about it for years but never got it off the ground, why the Europeans moved Galileo's operation date from 2008 to 2012 and why Beijing was content with a regional trial network for nearly seven years.
A Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics scientist working for the Compass project estimates each satellite would cost more than 250 million yuan, while each launch comes with a 200 million yuan bill.
He said the Russians had sent more than 100 satellites into orbit, but now only 17, and some say 14, were still functioning.
'The current designated lifespan of the Compass satellites is five years. Although the first experimental satellite has been in operation for seven years, bugs have been reported and we do not expect it to last any longer,' the scientist said.
He says the installation and maintenance costs of at least a dozen ground-based monitoring stations would also be big.
'It is not a one-time investment. Once you begin you cannot stop. I think it is why the central government is very cautious,' he said.
Some argue the commercial benefits will justify the cost of developing an indigenous system because the mainland has the largest potential satellite guiding and timing market in the world.
But Zhang Feizhou says Compass may not be able to compete with GPS in the short term.
The deputy director of the Laboratory of Geo-Spatial Information System at Peking University estimates 99 per cent of the forecast US$22 billion global civilian market this year will be dominated by GPS, and the situation will not change in the next five years.
'The US has set up numerous GPS base stations around the world, providing data that can significantly improve positioning and timing accuracy in a local area. It is unlikely other countries will allow China to build monitoring stations in their territory, at least for now,' he said.
'Therefore the Compass's application in overseas markets could be limited. But China must have a system. We have the largest number of [mobile] phone users and second largest market of car owners. Compass may not be better than GPS, Glonass or Galileo. But it will be provide big leverage in trade negotiations.
'Each time China acquires a core technology, overseas sellers in those fields immediately lower their voices, extend their supply lists and cut their prices.'
Building a satellite navigation system is expensive, which is why many proposals never get off the ground
Estimate of how much in yuan each satellite in the Compass project will cost 250m