H-2A rocket boosts Japanese radar spy satellite into orbit

Japan launched a new satellite Sunday to reinforce the country’s fleet of orbiting spy platforms charged with monitoring its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific.

The spacecraft carries a sophisticated radar payload designed to survey the globe night and day — and in all weather conditions — from an orbit about 300 miles above Earth. The synthetic aperture radar instrument can see through clouds and camouflage, but its exact capabilities are kept secret by the Japanese government.

The satellite blasted off at 0121 GMT Sunday (8:21 p.m. EST Saturday) on top of a 17-story H-2A rocket from the Tanegashima Space Center in southwestern Japan.

Two strap-on boosters consumed their pre-packed solid propellant in less than two minutes as the H-2A rocket soared south from its launch pad at Tanegashima. The rocket’s hydrogen-burning LE-7A and LE-5B first and second stage engines completed their planned firings as programmed before deploying the reconnaissance payload in space.

The rocket took off at 10:21 a.m. local time in Japan after a three-day delay caused by unfavorable weather at the launch site.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, which owns and operates the Tanegashima launch base, declared Sunday’s flight a success in a press release. The H-2A rocket launch was conducted by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the vehicle’s builder and commercial operator.

The launch marked the third H-2A rocket mission in less than four months, following launches of Japan’s Himawari 8 weather satellite in October and the Hayabusa 2 asteroid sample return probe in December.

The Information Gathering Satellite launched Sunday joins a network of surveillance craft run by the Cabinet Satellite Intelligence Center, which reports directly to the Japanese government’s executive leadership.

The radar spy craft was built as a backup for reconnaissance satellites launched on earlier missions.

Sunday’s launch was the 27th flight of an H-2A rocket since the launcher’s debut mission in August 2001, and the rocket’s 21st consecutive success since February 2005. It was the ninth H-2A launch in support of Japan’s spy satellite program.

Japan established the space-based reconnaissance program in the wake of a North Korean missile test over Japanese territory in 1998. Although the program was initially aimed at monitoring North Korea, the satellites can take pictures of nearly any place on Earth each day.

Japanese officials say data from the Information Gathering Satellites support civilian applications, such as responding to natural disasters.

The next H-2A launch is scheduled for March with an IGS payload carrying a high-resolution optical camera.

After the March flight, Japan plans plans up to three more launches from Tanegashima this year.

An H-2B rocket fitted with an extra hydrogen-fueled main engine and four solid rocket boosters will take off in August with an HTV cargo carrier for the International Space Station.

Japan’s Astro-H X-ray astronomy observatory and the Telstar 12V communications satellite — the H-2A’s first dedicated commercial launch — are currently scheduled to take off before the end of the year.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.