Space: GPS Competitors Come Online

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January 8, 2020: Beidou ("Compass"), the Chinese version of GPS (Global Positioning System) is now fully operational, providing worldwide coverage. China achieved this in December 2019 when it put the last two of its Beidou satellites into orbit some 21,800 kilometer high circular orbits, joining 22 others in similar obits covering the entire planet, plus six more in 36,000 kilometer high geosynchronous (stationary) orbits. The full Beidou network will be open for business as a world-wide service in early 2020.

People got their first experience with Beidou in late 2012 when the first few satellites were made available to anyone with a Beidou GPS receiver. Now China expects Beidou to become a major competitor for the existing global navigation systems among civilian users. China aims to grab a major share of the satellite navigation market from the original U.S GPS system and do it by 2030.

It has been a struggle to get Beidou operational. In 2013 China had only 14 of 35 Beidou satellites in service. This was sufficient to provide GPS type service for all of China. It was expected that all 35 satellites (including spares) would be in service by 2019 and so it was, with a few weeks to spare.

In 2008 China decided to expand its original Beidou 1 satellite navigation system to cover the entire planet and compete with GPS, the European Galileo and Russian Glonass. China has used the experience from this earlier Beidou 1 network to build the world-wide "Beidou 2" system. Since 2000 China has launched 53 Beidou satellites, including prototypes, replacements and various test models. The last two Baidu satellites were carried aloft by a single Long March 3B rocket. China put 30 satellites into orbit in 2019, more than any other nation. During 2019 only two satellites failed to achieve orbit, for a success rate of nearly 98 percent.

The Chinese Compass network incorporates the best features of the GLONASS and Galileo systems, as well as items planned for the next generation American GPS satellites. With all that, no one has found a way to make a buck off a network of navigation satellites, at least not directly. There are plenty of ideas but no one has yet turned any of those ideas into cash. Moreover, there are disputes between the Beidou, Galileo, and Glonass organizations over who should uses what frequencies first. Since GPS got into service first no one is contesting the frequencies GPS uses. But the three other players have some problems.

The success of the original GPS satellite navigation system has generated all this competition. But so far these other efforts have found the work much more difficult than expected. A European consortium went forward with Galileo despite growing costs and technical problems. Initially, Galileo was to be funded with private money. But the costs climbed beyond the most optimistic estimates of future income, so now Galileo is being paid for with tax dollars, as was GPS and the competing Russian and Chinese systems.

Four of the European Union (EU) Galileo navigation satellites system went live in 2016 but the full complement of 30 satellites (24 active and six spares) will not be complete until 2020. Meanwhile, there have been some technical problems. Galileo first became operational during 2012. The plan was to have all 30 Galileo satellites operational by 2019 and apparently that will only be a year late.

Galileo came about because the Europeans didn't like being dependent on an American system and didn't believe the Russians would be able to keep their GLONASS system viable. Galileo became operational because the European nations were willing to pay for a system that anyone could use without charge. Dual signal (GPS and Galileo) receivers won't cost much more (maybe 20 percent more) than GPS receivers do. Having two separate sets of signals makes for more reliable and accurate receivers. Also, the way Galileo is being set up, it will provide improved reliability in higher latitudes and in built up areas.

Russia's answer to GPS, GLONASS, was at full strength (24 satellites) in 1996, shortly after the Cold War ended. But the end of the Cold War in 1991 meant the end of the regular financing for GLONASS. Maintaining the system required launching replacement satellites every 5-7 years. By the end of 2002, only seven GLONASS birds were still operational. However, the Russian economy recovered and provided funds for a series of launches in 2003 that increased the number of active satellites to twelve. That went to 18 by the end of 2007 and Russia had 24 GLONASS satellites in orbit by 2011 with the system fully operational by 2012. As a result GLONASS was the first real competitor for GPS. However, GLONASS was not completely functional until 2016 because of delays in building all the ground control stations.

The money for GLONASS is coming from a Russian government that does not want to be dependent on the American controlled GPS system. But the money is only there because of high oil prices. Most GLONASS receivers in use are actually combined GPS/GLONASS receivers. Russia will have to put billions of dollars into GLONASS over the next few years to keep the system fully operational and then spend even more money to maintain the satellite network. GLONASS is widely used in conjunction with GPS. In other words many systems, including cell phones that already used GPS, added GLONASS and Galileo to provide better coverage and less instances where the signal was unavailable.

Beidu is a more restricted system. Services available to anyone are less accurate than other systems but Beidu also has a special (more accurate and allows messaging) military mode that is only available to the Chinese and Pakistani military. China will make an effort to monetize its GPS service, which really would make it unique compared to the others.

 


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