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Japanese satellites survived deadly quake in clean rooms

Posted: March 28, 2011

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Inspections show Japan's next space station cargo freighter and two other large Japanese-built satellites due for launch over the next year suffered no major damage from the March 11 earthquake that ravaged parts of the country, according industry officials.

File photo of an HTV cargo ship being prepared for launch. Credit: JAXA
Japan's third H-2 Transfer Vehicle, an unmanned robotic spaceship designed to resupply the International Space Station, weathered the earthquake at a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. facility in Nagoya, a large city southwest of Tokyo away from the zone of heaviest damage.

The cargo craft is due to blast off in January 2012 aboard an H-2B rocket from the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan. It will ferry crew provisions, experiments and other equipment to the space station.

Makoto Miwada, a JAXA spokesperson in Tokyo, said the HTV was "safe" following the quake.

A JAXA climate research satellite named GCOM-W1 undergoing environmental testing at the Tsukuba Space Center was also unharmed during the earthquake despite significant damage to other parts of the complex, which is located about 30 miles northeast of central Tokyo.

Tsukuba's space station control center was taken offline after losing power and commanding capabilities in the wake of the tremor. Japanese officials restored the control center to full functionality last week.

Photo of the GCOM-W1 satellite undergoing testing at Tsukuba in January. Credit: JAXA
The GCOM-W1 satellite was inside Tsukuba's spacecraft integration and test facility, which suffered some damage during the 9.0-magnitude quake, Miwada said. GCOM-W1 is the first Global Change Observation Mission dedicated to tracking precipitation and the water cycle around the world.

The climate research satellite will continue observations conducted by NASA's Aqua mission.

GCOM-W1's microwave scanning radiometer instrument was also at Tsukuba during the earthquake, along with radar sensors for the Global Precipitation Mission and the joint European-Japanese EarthCARE satellite.

"There is no damage to the GCOM-W1 spacecraft and the other flight hardware even after the quake," Miwada told Spaceflight Now. "But the Tsukuba people may need several weeks or months to repair the building and recover the clean (room) for testing."

Miwada added some of the GCOM-W1 satellite's testing will have to be rescheduled. What affect the quake will have on the mission's scheduled launch in November remains unclear.

GCOM-W1 is expected to launch on an H-2A rocket with South Korea's KOMPSAT 3 high-resolution Earth imaging satellite.

Artist's concept of the ST-2 satellite in orbit. Credit: Mitsubishi Electric Corp.
The Mitsubishi Electric Corp. ST-2 communications satellite also survived the March 11 quake unscathed, according to the spacecraft's prime contractor. The craft was preparing to be shipped to the Ariane 5 rocket launch site in South America from a Mitsubishi factory in Kamakura southwest of Tokyo.

ST-2 Satellite Ventures, a joint venture formed by Singapore Telecommunications Ltd. and Chunghwa Telecom Co. of Taiwan, will use the ST-2 spacecraft to cover the Asia-Pacific region.

ST-2 and India's GSAT 8 satellites will blast off on an Ariane 5 rocket in May.