China launched the sixth satellite of its Beidou-2 programme yesterday, part of an accelerated challenge to US supremacy in providing global positioning services.
It was the fourth satellite added to the system this year - the previous two took three years - with eight more expected to go into orbit next year.
By 2012 China will have more than a dozen satellites capable of covering the Asia-Pacific region and by 2020 it will have complete global coverage with 35 satellites.
Chinese observers of the programme say it will give the country strategic independence and become a commercial gold mine.
Xu Guangyu , a retired general now serving as a senior researcher at the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, says Beidou-2 will significantly increase China's military strength and political influence around the world.
Without a global positioning system, Chinese troops and navy vessels had to depend heavily, if not entirely, on the United States' Global Positioning System (GPS) network, Xu said. The US military could, and in fact had, manipulated the signals and severely threatened China's national security.
He said other countries had suffered similar embarrassment, and the arrival of Beidou-2 would provide a helpful counter balance to US dominance.
'Beidou-2 will not only be available for free to overseas civilian users but also to militaries with a higher precision level for a small amount in fees,' he said. 'The world no longer needs to ask the US for directions.'
Yang Lizhuang , a director of BDStar Navigation, a key satellite service provider to the Chinese military and industrial sectors, said China had learned from the battle between the US and the Soviet Union.
'The Russians were beaten not technologically, but commercially,' he said.
'The goal of Beidou-2 is to beat GPS commercially, with a lower price at equal quality.
'When Beidou-2 goes global, so will the business of Chinese navigation product companies. It is a gold mine of tens of billions of US dollars a year.'
Yang said the increasing launch intensity showed that the Chinese government had 'pulled the trigger of a fully loaded automatic rifle' in a global fight for economic, political and military influence at the dawn of a new space age.
The Beidou-2 project kicked off in the early 1980s but remained theoretical until the launch of two experimental satellites in 2000. The experiment lasted seven years, impressing neither the military nor civilian sectors, revealing a user's whereabouts to potential enemies and lagging far behind the precision of GPS.
The launch of the first non-experimental Beidou-2 satellite in 2007 dispelled the previous bad impression. Not only did it avoid major technical glitches, but it significantly increased the performance benchmark, with some features surpassing GPS.
Xie Jun , chief designer of the system, said in an interview on the project's official website yesterday that a satellite production plant on the mainland had been running at full capacity with its workers and engineers cancelling holidays and even medical leave for the past three years to produce enough satellites for a 'burst of launches'.
Unlike China's other satellites, which were assembled in semi-independent workshops, the Beidou-2 satellites roll off an assembly line, Xie said, a clear indication that China's space industry had entered the era of mass production.
'We have acquired the ability for a quick build-up in space,' he said.
Yang said that with tens of billions of yuan invested by the government, and unwavering political support, Beidou-2 had the potential to compete with GPS not only in China but around the world.
A GPS receiver needs to 'see' at least four satellites to pinpoint its location, including one to correct signal transmission errors. With 24 satellites in different orbits, GPS was supposed to guarantee at least four satellites would be visible at any time from anywhere, but in mountainous areas and cities with skyscrapers, such as Hong Kong, the result was poor because most of the sky was blocked, he said.
With the government investment and support, many Chinese receiver manufacturers have already come up with products that can identify and capture both GPS and Beidou-2 signals. Some had even included Russia's unfinished Glonass system and the Galileo from Europe, which is still in its infancy.
Consumers who had used the GPS-Beidou-2 combination system never wanted to go back to a GPS-only system because the combination was faster, more precise and significantly more reliable, he said.
By 2012 China will have more than 12 satellites covering Asia-Pacific
The number of satellites it will have by 2020 giving global coverage: 35