Successful launch takes China a step closer to completing Beidou navigation constellation

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HELSINKI — China successfully launched a Beidou positioning, navigation and timing satellite Monday as the country nears completion of its answer to the GPS system.

The Long March 3B/E rocket lifted off from Xichang Satellite Launch Center at 7:55 a.m. Eastern. The Beidou GEO-2 satellite was sent into a geosynchronous transfer orbit.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., (CASC), announced launch success just over an hour after liftoff. This was also the first official confirmation of the launch attempt, with airspace closure notices indirectly indicating imminent activity days earlier.

The satellite uses phased array antenna to provide positioning, navigation and timing services. Monday’s launch is the penultimate step in China completing its global Beidou system.

The completed Beidou navigation satellite system consists of 27 satellites in medium Earth orbits, five in geostationary orbits and three in inclined GEO orbits. Beidou is used in sectors including public security, transportation, fishing, power, forestry, disaster reduction, the construction of smart cities, social governance and mass market applications. This system can also be used for emergency search and rescue and short message services

Beidou also boosts the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army in areas including weapons targeting, guidance and other services,  thereby facilitating power projection beyond its borders. The constellation removes previous Chinese military reliance on the U.S.’ GPS.

The Beidou system has so far been constructed by 39 launches, sending 54 satellites into orbit. The mission success rate  is 100 percent according to CASC.

Beidou launch preparations

The first indication the launch had been conducted came from images shared on Chinese social media. Locals were also startled by the noise and vibrations. 

The first stage and side boosters of the hypergolic Long March 3B were expected to fall to Earth downrange. Villages in the calculated drop zones had been issued notices to prepare evacuation and other measures. 

Another social media user suggested spent stages had fallen based on sounds. No images of recovered debris were posted, with mission occurring after local sunset. Launches from Xichang frequently result in spent stages threatening inhabited areas.

The state-owned enterprise stated early January that it aimed to carry out more than 40 launches across 2020. These include major interplanetary, lunar and space infrastructure missions.

It is unclear to what extent the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak and measures to contain it will impact these plans. Chinese state media reported Monday that the country’s launch plans remain mostly unaffected.

Wednesday’s mission was China’s fifth in 2020. It follows a Feb. 19 Long March 2D launch from Xichang. Launch campaigns for new Long March 7A and Long March 5B rockets are underway at the coastal Wenchang spaceport.

Stacking of a Long March 3B launch vehicle at Xichang launch center in China.
Stacking of a Long March 3B launch vehicle at Xichang launch center in China. Credit: CASC