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    With Latest Launch, China Completes Its Global Satellite Navigation System

    China has been racing to finish the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System amid fears that other countries might disrupt — or even cut off — essential positioning services.

    China launched the final satellite of its independently developed BeiDou Navigation Satellite System on Tuesday morning after a one-week delay due to “technical issues.”

    Loaded on a Long March 3B carrier rocket, the 55th BeiDou satellite was sent into space from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwestern China’s Sichuan province. The satellite has since entered its designated orbit, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

    The first BeiDou satellite was launched 20 years ago but has since been retired. The group’s final 30 members — all third-generation satellites — make up the world’s fourth global satellite navigation system after the United States’ GPS, the European Union’s Galileo, and Russia’s GLONASS.

    China has been racing to build an independently operated satellite system amid fears that other countries might disrupt or even cut off their positioning services, according to the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

    “Whether for national security or the enormous business profits in the navigation application market, China must have its own satellite navigation system. There is no real international collaboration in this field,” the academy said on social app WeChat.

    Unlike other satellite navigation systems that can only send signals to terminals on the ground, Beidou can also receive signals. This feature may make BeiDou useful in remote search and rescue missions, for example, when cellular signals are disrupted, according to the academy.

    The 55th satellite launched Tuesday will orbit around the Earth’s equator and cover about 40% of the planet’s surface at any given time, Shen Yuan, deputy commander of the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, told Sixth Tone. The satellite will undergo a series of tests from orbit before it begins providing services along with the rest of the network.

    “The completed BeiDou constellation will provide more comprehensive global coverage, stronger service, and a better customer experience,” Shen said.

    The BeiDou system can perform a wide range of functions for both the military and the public, with applications in sectors such as agriculture, disaster relief, finance, and more.

    The system’s navigation services will be free for all users worldwide, as long as their devices are equipped with BeiDou-enabled chips. In China, about 70% of smartphones can use BeiDou already, the system’s chief designer, Yang Changfeng, told domestic media in May.

    Moreover, technological support from the ground will allow BeiDou to provide precise positioning services down to the centimeter level, according to state broadcaster CCTV. “Beidou can accurately determine which lane of a street a car is traveling in,” the outlet said.

    Hellobike, one of China’s major shared-bike providers, has equipped its millions of bikes across the country with BeiDou-enabled chips. Previously, the company had been relying on the U.S.’s GPS for location services, Wang Fan, a Hellobike spokesperson, told Sixth Tone.

    “It would be very beneficial not only to users, but also to the company and the regulatory officers if we could very accurately locate our bikes,” Wang said. “Every day, we provide over 10 million trips. So we would get fewer calls from customers who aren’t able to find our bikes, for example.”

    Editor: David Paulk.

    (Header image: The last satellite for China’s independently developed BeiDou Navigation Satellite System is sent into space from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan Province, June 23, 2020. People Visual)