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Japan completes quartet of spy satellites with latest launch; will now be able to photograph any point on Earth once a day

Japan, February 2007 – The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) used an H-IIA rocket on February 24 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. An H-IIA rocket carrying the two satellites blasts skyward from the Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture.

The experimental optical satellite launched 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 next generation of optical satellites, which can detect objects as small as 40 centimeters, is scheduled to be launched in 2009.

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. Japan’s satellites can distinguish objects a meter or more in diameter.

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. Some experts say that the number of spy satellites Japan has in orbit should be at least doubled to eight so that they can survey virtually any point in the world at least twice every day, instead of once every day under the four-satellite system. The United States has at least 15 spy satellites in operation. The Japanese spy satellites are also much inferior to their U.S. counterparts in quality. The U.S. satellites have a much higher resolution.

The life span of the four Japanese spy satellites is about five years. A new optical satellite with a higher resolution is to be launched in fiscal 2009, followed by a new radar one in fiscal 2011. The experimental satellite launched on February 24 is to obtain data for the new optical satellite to be blasted off in fiscal 2009.

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. Japan insists that the satellites are not meant to be a provocation and will also be used for monitoring natural disasters and weather patterns.