H-2A rocket achieves fourth launch in six months

A new surveillance satellite equipped with a high-resolution optical camera blasted into space aboard a Japanese H-2A rocket Thursday, joining a fleet of spy stations in orbit to track military activity in North Korea and other locations around the world.

Owned and operated by the Japanese government, the reconnaissance spacecraft lifted off at 0121 GMT Thursday (9:21 p.m. EDT Wednesday) from the picturesque Tanegashima Space Center situated on an island in southwestern Japan, where the launch occurred at 10:21 a.m. local time.

The satellite rocketed into space aboard Japan’s H-2A rocket, which steered south from Tanegashima to deploy its payload into polar orbit. The launcher aimed to release the satellite in an orbit about 300 miles above Earth.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, which operates the H-2A rocket’s launch facility, announced separation of the mission’s satellite passenger about 21 minutes after liftoff. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries built and launched the H-2A rocket.

JAXA did not provide a live online broadcast of the launch as the space agency does with scientific and commercial flights. A webcast put on by spectators showed the H-2A rocket soar into a cloudless deep blue sky over Tanegashima, then shed its dual solid-fueled strap-on boosters about two minutes later.

The H-2A rocket’s hydrogen-fueled first and second stage engines apparently functioned as designed to put the Earth-viewing satellite into orbit.

Thursday’s launch marked the 28th flight of Japan’s H-2A rocket since 2001, extending the launcher’s streak to 22 straight successes. All but one of the rocket’s flights have been successful.

The rocket flew in the basic “202” configuration with two strap-on solid rocket boosters. Heavier satellites launching on the H-2A sometimes need four boosters to reach orbit.

The H-2A rocket has racked up four launches in less than six months, the most rapid launch cadence in the vehicle’s history. The missions sent up a new Japanese weather satellite, dispatched JAXA’s Hayabusa 2 asteroid explorer, and launched two spy satellites.

The spacecraft deployment Thursday added to Japan’s orbiting network of Information Gathering Satellites, comprised of platforms carrying optical and radar instruments to give Japanese authorities sharp, all-weather views of targets around the world.

The satellite launched Thursday — named IGS Optical 5 — is the fleet’s newest member with a high-resolution telescopic camera. The imager’s exact capabilities are kept secret by the Japanese government.

The IGS system is run by the Cabinet Satellite Intelligence Center, which reports directly to the Japanese government’s executive leadership.

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.

Japan’s next launch is scheduled for Aug. 17, when the more powerful H-2B rocket and the H-2 Transfer Vehicle will deliver fresh supplies and experiments to the International Space Station.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.