HELSINKI — China launched a Beidou-3 navigation satellite late Monday to complete a project designed to provide military independence and immense commercial value.

Launch occurred at 9:43 p.m. Eastern at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, southwest China. 

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) confirmed the Long March 3B launch vehicle had successfully placed the Beidou-3 satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit shortly after. The satellite was later reported catalogued in a 218 x 35,784-kilometer orbit.

A previous attempt was scrubbed a week ago due to ‘technical issues’ discovered during pre-launch checks. CASC revealed Tuesday that data from a pressure release value indicated an issue with a third stage hydrolox engine.

The new satellite will complete the Beidou navigation and positioning system, consisting of 27 satellites in medium Earth orbit, five in geostationary orbit and three more in inclined geosynchronous orbits. 

The first Beidou satellite was launched in 2000 for testing and domestic services. Monday’s was the 30th third generation Beidou-3 satellite sent into orbit. A total of 55 Beidou satellites have been launched over two decades.

The third generation Beidou satellites are designed to provide positioning, navigation and timing services globally. It joins the U.S. GPS, Russia’s GLONASS and the European Galileo systems in providing global PNT coverage.

Beidou civilian uses, military modernization

The rollout of the space segment of the Beidou system completes a major piece of space infrastructure. The development brings China a number of civilian, commercial and military benefits.

“One way to look at it is global infrastructure that’s a potential alternative for commercial and civilian users on Earth to America’s GPS. Dependency on infrastructure gives influence to whomever controls that infrastructure,” says Dr Bleddyn Bowen, lecturer in international relations at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom.

The Beidou navigation and positioning system, named after the ‘Big Dipper’ constellation. It is used in sectors including public security, transportation, fishing, power, forestry, disaster reduction, governance and mass market applications. This system can also be used for emergency search and rescue. The civilian signals from Beidou are understood to be comparable to those from GPS.

“But with four GNSS soon to be live, I am sceptical over how much leverage China will get in civil/commercial terms with other parts of the world given that other states and companies can go shopping for other infrastructure if China decides to not allow them to use it as they wish,” Bowen says.

Bowen states that the primary benefit of the system is for modernizing China’s military forces and integrating spacepower into its terrestrial strike forces and long-range conventional missile systems. 

“However, to truly capitalise on this the People’s Liberation Army needs to distribute a lot of receivers which will take time, and of course its modernizing forces need to get used to conducting high-intensity space-enabled military operations. America and its allies have 30 years of experience in this and have developed a lot of skills and institutional memory on how to use GPS in combat. China can’t claim to have that – not yet anyway.”

Live launch, debris downrange

The launch was, exceptionally, streamed by Chinese state media. Launches from China’s inland spaceports are typically restricted in terms of access and live footage. Multiple views of the rocket on the LC 2 pad at Xichang were available.

As with many of the Beidou satellite launches from Xichang, spent boosters may have fallen close to inhabited areas downrange. 

Apparently related footage posted on social media shows orange smoke rising from trees close to a reservoir, downrange in Yuqing county in Guizhou province.

Oof. Yet again. Apparent debris from the Long March 3B rocket which launched the Beidou-3 satellite launch today, landing close to a reservoir in Yuqing county, Guizhou. Source:

— Andrew Jones (@AJ_FI) June 23, 2020

Smoke was likely caused by residual dinitrogen tetroxide oxidizer. The first stage and four side boosters of the Long March 3B use a toxic hypergolic propellant combination of hydrazine and dinitrogen tetroxide. 

Further images and footage of spent booster on the ground were shared in other posts on the Sina Weibo microblogging platform.

A similar launch in November saw a spent booster destroy a home in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, south China. 

China’s first three launch sites were established during the Cold War. Sites deep inland were thus selected to provide a measure of protection amid tensions with the U.S. and Soviet Union. This means launches result in spent stages falling to ground rather than in the oceans.

Inhabited areas within calculated drop zones are understood to be issued with evacuation orders ahead of launchers.

CASC has recently been taking measures to constrain the drop zones with tests of grid fins and parafoils. China opened a fourth site on the coast of Hainan island, south China, in 2016. So far Wenchang been used exclusively for newer Long March 5 and 7 series rockets.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for GBTIMES and SpaceNews. He is based in Helsinki, Finland.