Japan enters spy satellite arena with rocket launch

Updated: March 28, 2003

File photo of H-2A rocket launch. Credit: NASDA
Breaking from over 30 years of strict non-military use of the high frontier, Japan launched its first pair of reconnaissance satellites today that will serve as spying eyes to keep tabs on neighboring North Korea.

Fitted with six solid rocket boosters, liftoff of the Japanese H-2A rocket's fifth flight was on time at 0127 GMT (8:27 p.m. EST Thursday), or late morning at the launch site on Tanegashima Island in Japan.

The launch came amid tight security and increased law enforcement presence at the Tanegashima launch base offshore of the Japanese main island.

Released into a near-polar orbit from the rocket shortly after liftoff were two satellites for the Japanese government that will have the ability to peer down on regions worldwide from their orbit estimated to be close to 300 miles high.

Despite the official term of "Information Gathering Satellites" being assigned to the pair of spacecraft, there has been widespread informed speculation that the craft's main mission is to monitor North Korean nuclear weapons and missile development activities.

Approval of the spy satellite program came just a few months after North Korea launched a Taepodong ballistic missile over Japanese territory before crashing into the Pacific in August 1998.

Japanese officials reportedly did not have knowledge of the event until told by the United States hours later. Approval of a reconnaissance system to include at least four satellites came in November of 1998, followed by the start of implementation of the $2 billion program.

Before the spy satellite system was begun, Japan relied exclusively on commercially available imagery and intelligence provided by U.S. assets. Officials say having a domestic reconnaissance program will ensure the security of Japan better than being subjected to delays waiting for commercial satellite data or information from the United States.

North Korea also sharply criticized Japan before the launch, calling the mission a "hostile act" that could nullify an agreement made last year against long-range missile tests. The official state-run news agency claimed Japan is acting as a "shock brigade" for the United States, and that the launch is "heightening the vigilance" of North Korea.

With the spacecraft now in place and testing presumably underway, the pair will soon have the capability of imaging any location on the globe.

One of the satellites utilizes an optical camera that is expected to have a black-and-white resolution of about one meter, comparable to a modern commercial remote sensing spacecraft. The other makes use of synthetic aperture radar technology that can peer through clouds or the darkness of night for observations.

Critics say the launch violates a 1969 resolution that prohibits military use of space by Japan, but the government has identified a number of peaceful applications of the satellites other than direct reconnaissance. Natural disaster monitoring and weather observation are among the other operations the high-profile pair of spacecraft will take part in.

Another set of satellites for the system will be launched later this year aboard another H-2A booster. A decision on whether to loft the two spacecraft on the next launch this summer has yet to be made, NASDA spokesman Junichi Moriuma told Spaceflight Now. At least a third launch opportunity could be available by year's end.

The National Space Development Agency of Japan also has another payload that could fill the summer launch slot -- MTSAT-1R -- the replacement for a satellite lost in the final H-2 launch in November 1999.

Meanwhile, NASDA authorized a privatization plan for its new H-2A rocket that debuted in 2001. Contractor Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Corporation was selected to control H-2A launch operations, with full transfer complete from NASDA in fiscal year 2005, Moriuma said.

Rocket program officials hope to one day market the H-2A for commercial satellite launches for customers across the globe, but with the recent slump in the satellite industry that left a large number of launchers competing for few payloads, the H-2A program has less than ten government and domestic launches on its manifest.

The H-2A has now racked up five consecutive successful launches, a stark contrast to the years preceding the rocket's first flight when Japanese boosters suffered a streak of failures.

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