LONDON The launch over the weekend by China of a navigation satellite , its first for four years, could signal the country's challenge to the American Global Positioning System (GPS) and Europe's fledgling Galileo network, in which China is already a partner.
The so called Bediou satellite is bound for a circular geostationary orbit about 22,300 miles high, where it will join three other Beidou craft launched during the past seven years.
China has said it plans to launch a series of satellites to create a space based navigation network called the Compass Navigation Satellite System that would be far more accurate than the system that can be offered from existing craft.
To date the plans for this network have been shrouded in secrecy, with officials repeatedly declining to comment on the project. However, over the weekend, the Chinese news agency Xinhua lifted the veil slightly, and said there are plans to launch other navigation satellites this year to create a network covering the whole of China and parts of some neighboring countries by 2008.
Xinhua said in November that Beijing would provide open access to Beidou signals allowing positioning accuracy within 10 meters.
The Compass system would expand to offer global coverage with the creation of a constellation of 30 medium earth orbit satellites, Xinhua said, but gave no timescales for when this would be operational.
According to a report in FT.com analysts have suggested the expanded Beidou system would use the same radio frequencies as Galileo and possibly GPS, making it more difficult for adversaries to jam the network in case of war.
A Chinese global navigation system could become a significant threat to the 30-satellite European Galileo project, which is not now scheduled to come on stream till 2011.
While China has become an official partner to the European effort, and its government and companies are understood to be investing Euros 200 million ($260 million) with related facilities and research into commercial applications, it is shaping up as a potential competitor.