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China tech

China completes GPS rival Beidou with latest satellite launch

Beijing's decoupling from US moves forward in space ahead of Mars probe

The final satellite in the Beidou system was put into orbit on Tuesday from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center. (Photo courtesy of BeiDou Navigation Satellite System)

BEIJING -- China has completed Beidou, its answer to the Global Positioning System of satellites used to navigate everything from cars to bombs, advancing Beijing's effort to cut its reliance on American technology.

The final, 55th satellite in the Chinese system was put into orbit by a rocket that blasted off Tuesday from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, according to the China Satellite Navigation Office.

The successful launch comes two decades after the first satellite in the constellation was deployed, part of a project crucial to China's goal of becoming a space power. It comes ahead of planned launch of a Chinese probe to Mars this summer.

Beidou, the Chinese name for the Big Dipper or Plough, began providing positioning data worldwide in 2018 after a limited debut in the Asia-Pacific region six years earlier.

Beidou uses the 35 best satellites out of the 55 to cover the globe. Chinese media say this surpasses the 31 satellites in the GPS network. Beidou's commercial positioning service achieves accuracy measured in tens of centimeters, the highest level available for civilian use and equivalent to military-grade GPS data, according to Chinese sources.

The U.S. took an early lead in satellite-based navigation, launching the first satellite in 1978 in what became the GPS network. China, too, relied on GPS data after the system became widely available for civilian use.

Work on Beidou began in 1994, but the project gained urgency for Beijing after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in which the rescue effort was hampered by difficulty using GPS. China went on to launch 50 Beidou satellites in about a decade, completing the system six months ahead of schedule.

Sources say Beidou helps navigate Chinese border patrol and coast guard vehicles, among other national security applications. The system also is a tool for the Belt and Road cross-border infrastructure initiative, President Xi Jinping's signature project. China has exported Beidou products to 120 countries, Chinese officials say.

Economic activity from Beidou-related products and services rose 14% last year to 345 billion yuan ($48.7 billion) -- more than double the level of five years earlier. The value is forecast to reach 500 billion yuan in three years.

Space is one of the priority areas of Beijing's Made in China 2025 plan for high-tech self-sufficiency. After this summer's Mars probe launch, China aims to complete its own space station in 2022 and become a "space power" in 2030.

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