China launched a Long March 3B rocket from the Xichang space centre in Sichuan Province on 5 November that placed two more Beidou-3 navigation satellites into medium Earth orbit (MEO).
The launch of the satellites had been expected in July, but investigations into the failure of a similar rocket to place a communications satellite in the correct orbit in June led to the four-month delay.
The Beidou programme is being implemented in three phases and more than 30 satellites have been launched since October 2000. Four satellites were placed in orbit during the first phase, Beidou-1, which was largely experimental and was then superseded by Beidou-2, which became operational in 2012. The 12 operational Beidou-2 satellites provide coverage over China and the Asia-Pacific region.
Unlike the US Global Positioning System (GPS), which operates four or more satellites in each of six medium Earth orbital planes, the Beidou system has satellites in geostationary (GEO), inclined geosynchronous (IGSO) and MEOs.
The latest satellites to be launched are elements of the Beidou-3 constellation, which have been placed in MEOs at an altitude of 21,500 km. Up to 18 more Beidou-3 satellites are expected to be launched by the end of 2018, which will extend coverage to all countries involved in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The full constellation of 27 MEO, 5 GEO and 3 IGSO satellites is planned for completion by 2020 and is set to provide worldwide coverage.
A report by the state-owned China Daily newspaper states that development of the Beidou-3 system began in 2009 and that five satellites launched in 2015 and 2016 were used to validate the technologies to be used in the upgraded system.
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