Japanese spy satellite rockets into orbit
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: September 11, 2006
Japan's third spy satellite successfully rocketed into space today to replace a similar craft lost in a 2003 launch failure. The reconnaissance platform will help monitor North Korean nuclear and military facilities.
The clandestine satellite launched from the Yoshinobu launch complex at the Tanegashima space center on the southern end of the Japanese island chain. Liftoff of the H-2A rocket was at 0435 GMT (12:35 a.m. EDT), or in the early afternoon hours at Tanegashima.
The two-stage launcher - fitted with a pair of 50-foot long solid rocket boosters - quickly arced on a southward trajectory from Tanegashima, and the government payload was released into its planned orbit about 300 miles high a few minutes later.
The flight was delayed by 24 hours from Sunday due to bad weather near the launch site. Weather on Monday remained acceptable for liftoff, despite forecasts of clouds and rain.
The craft can see objects as small as one meter, but images from many commercial remote sensing satellites can show even finer detail. U.S. government reconnaissance satellites also give users much better resolution.
Officially known as an "Information Gathering Satellite," the classified spacecraft joins another optical satellite and a craft carrying radar equipment that can pierce clouds and see areas shrouded in darkness. Those two satellites were delivered into orbit in a successful launch in March 2003 that marked the first deployment of spy satellites in space for the pacifist nation.
The primary region of interest for Japan's fleet of reconnaissance satellites is North Korea, where suspect nuclear facilities and missile sites are coming under increasing scrutiny.
Japan has long avoided the military use of space due to a 1969 law that prohibits the island nation from engaging in such activities.
However, North Korea fired a missile over Japanese territory in 1998, which served as a catalyst for the development of a domestic space-based reconnaissance system. Three months later, Japan's government approved a spy satellite program to decrease reliance on intelligence imagery from the United States and commercial sources. More test flights of North Korean missiles in July have further escalated tensions in the region.
Two identical craft were sent skyward in November 2003, but one of the H-2A's solid rocket boosters failed to separate as planned almost two minutes after launch. Several minutes later, a destruct signal was sent to the vehicle when it was clear the extra weight would prevent a successful mission.
A satellite carrying synthetic aperture radar technology could fly this winter, according to Japanese news reports. Radars allow the spacecraft to image regions during the day and at night and under any weather conditions.
Monday's flight was originally slated to haul both the visible and radar craft into orbit, but Japanese officials instead chose to launch the satellites one at a time.
The space-based reconnaissance system will allow Japan to monitor the entire planet at least once a day, officials say.
Another H-2A rocket is also scheduled to launch with the ETS-8 communications test satellite before next April.
The next launch for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency is less than two weeks away. The small-class M-5 booster is planned to loft the SOLAR-B observatory to study the Sun on September 22.