Beidou, China's own competitor to GPS, is now officially available for civilian and commercial use. The news was announced at a press conference yesterday, where Xinhua reported that a spokesman said the service is "comparable" to GPS, and is capable of pinning down locations by 10 meters (about 33 feet). The most conservative US accuracy measurements of GPS (without augmentation systems like WAAS) come in at 7.8 meters, though other estimates mark accuracy at closer to 3 meters, depending on the equipment used. According to the spokesman, Beidou's 16 satellites can also measure velocity within 0.2 meters per second (about 0.44mph) and the system can synchronize clocks with an accuracy of 50 nanoseconds.

In addition to civilian service, experts say the primary purpose of Beidou is to reduce the Chinese military's reliance on US-controlled GPS. It's been in the works since 2000, and today's launch comes exactly a year after China began a trial of Beidou for military and government use. While its signals do reach countries like Australia, Beidou is still a regional service mainly limited to China. However, China Daily reports that the China Satellite Navigation Office plans to launch about 40 satellites from 2014 to 2024, with an ultimate goal of global coverage. There is no word of any consumer devices that are yet capable of using Beidou's data, but China has just released its Interface Control Document for the service, which lays out the specifications needed to connect with the service. With today's launch, Beidou joins Russia's GLONASS and the European Union's Galileo system in trying to compete with GPS.