Japan Launches Spy Satellites



Japan Times reports a Japanese H-IIA rocket carrying two satellites blasted off from the Tanegashima Space Center (see web cam) in Kagoshima Prefecture:

JAXA used an H-IIA rocket Saturday to successfully place a radar satellite in orbit to complete Japan’s spy system for full global coverage.

The rocket also carried an experimental optical satellite.

Both satellites were placed in orbit about 20 minutes after the 1:40 p.m. launch from the Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said.

They began functioning and their solar-battery panels are open, JAXA said.

If the radar satellite continues to perform as planned, Japan’s compliment of four spy satellites will be able to photograph any point on Earth once a day for intelligence-gathering, the agency said.

The government decided to launch spy satellites after North Korea fired a Taepodong-1 ballistic missile in 1998, part of which flew over Japan into the Pacific Ocean. Pyongyang maintains it was for sending a satellite into orbit.

The launch of the radar satellite enhances a multibillion dollar, decade-old plan for Japan to have round-the-clock surveillance of the secretive North and other areas Japan wants to peer in on.

In the spy project, two optical satellites and one radar satellite have already been placed into orbit.

But weaknesses in the satellites’ capabilities have led to criticism that the program is a waste of money and, with better data available on the commercial market, that the government will continue to be dependent on Washington for its core intelligence.

The launch also comes just a month after China demonstrated its ability to shoot satellites out of orbit with ground-based missiles. Japan and other countries, including the United States, have strongly protested Beijing’s antisatellite test.

China has defended the test as peaceful, and said it presents no country with a threat.

JAXA officials say the satellites provide an important means for the country to independently collect intelligence, and say improvements in the satellites’ capabilities are in the works.

The experimental optical satellite launched Saturday features higher-resolution optics that can be used in the future to improve the quality of orbital photographs taken by Japanese satellites.

The two optical satellites already in orbit are reportedly capable of detecting objects about 1 meter in size. The plan is to work toward a satellite capable of detecting objects half that size.

JAXA had originally intended to launch the rocket Feb. 15 but postponed it three times due to thunder and poor weather conditions.