Chinese plans to compete with the US-operated GPS system took a step forward this week with the launch of this Long March rocket from a space port in China's Sichuan province.

The rocket, which lifted off at 5:44am on Wednesday morning, put the latest in a series of Chinese navigation satellites into orbit.

The Chinese network, called Beidou or Compass in English, is a first generation service began providing nationwide coverage in 2008.

China has credited Beidou with helping in the relief efforts after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, saying it was the only channel connecting the quake-hit area with the outside.

The second-generation network is scheduled to go into operation next year and will consist of 12 satellites providing coverage across most of Asia. Wednesday morning's launch was the ninth satellite of the planned twelve.

Further afield, China plans for global coverage by 2020 when 35 Beidou satellites will be in orbit.

The country is not alone in wanting to replace or supplement GPS. Originally developed for military purposes, GPS has become essential in civilian transportation and logistics industries. Any disruption to service could have a significant hit on a national economy, hence the push for back-ups.

One of the most ambitious projects is Galileo, a pan-European satellite navigation network that's currently being built at a cost of some €20 billion.

Russia is already covered by Glosnass, which plans to go global this year, and Japan and India are also planning their own services.

For users, the new networks might offer better coverage.

Japan launched its first Michibiki satellite in September 2010. The planned network of 4 satellites promise better coverage of the country because they fly overhead more often. That means their signals can reach city streets that are normally out of view of GPS signals because of sky-scrapers and other buildings.

Service should still be available free of charge for basic navigation. Access to more accurate signals, down to several centimeters instead of several meters, will be offered to commercial users for a subscription fee.