China to launch GPS alternative with own Beidou system

China built the system to reduce reliance on U.S.-controlled GPS system

China on Tuesday began offering its own satellite navigation system to users, as an effort to move away from the nation's reliance on the U.S.-built NAVSTAR GPS network.

On Tuesday, the country announced details of its Beidou system, which means Big Dipper in English, and already operates by using 10 Chinese satellites in orbit. China plans to enhance the system at the end of 2012 when six additional satellites go into operation.

China said building its own satellite navigation system was necessary in order to further economic development, according to Ran Chengqi, a spokesman for the Beidou system. "If there is no independent control of the satellite navigation system, the security of China's economic and social development lacks dependable protection," he said during a Tuesday media briefing posted online.

Beidou, however, is compatible with existing satellite navigation systems, according to Ran. Initially the Beidou system will only serve China and neighboring countries. But by 2020, the system will offer global coverage, by using a total of more than 30 satellites. The service is free of charge and has already been in use by different domestic industries since Beidou was first started in its early stages back in 2000.

China made Tuesday's announcement as a way to also encourage both domestic and foreign companies to develop satellite navigation devices using the Beidou system. Authorities have made technical information about the system available at www.beidou.gov.cn. (An English document of the system can be found here.)

Beidou is accurate within 25 meters. But its accuracy will improve to 10 meters by the end of next year. The system also allows users to send short messages, but officials at Tuesday's announcement did not reveal details of how the feature worked.

Other alternatives to GPS already exist or are in development. Russia has its GLONASS network, and the European Union is developing its Galileo satellite navigation system. Japan has also launched its own satellites to improve the navigation services in the country.

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