Keiko Chino / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer
One of the government’s four intelligence-gathering satellites has ceased to operate due to a breakdown of its power source, bringing to light many problems that have to be addressed.
An official of the Cabinet Satellite Intelligence Center said while the center has not given up trying to reestablish contact with the satellite, Radar No. 1, which malfunctioned one year earlier than its five-year life expectancy, the likelihood of successfully reestablishing contact is slim from a technical point of view.
In the circumstances, the government’s two optical satellites will have to undertake all work until late May, as the fourth satellite, Radar No. 2, is still operating in test mode.
Commissioned by the government, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency develops such satellites.
JAXA satellites usually last longer than their intended lifespan as they must be durable to survive the harsh conditions of space.
Of the Earth observation satellites launched into space, satellites Midori and Midori No. 2 stopped functioning 10 months after blasting off due to malfunctioning solar batteries, but some satellites have lasted four times longer than their projected operating life.
An official at the center said that the intelligence-gathering satellite broke down because of the unfortunate deterioration of the machine, but experts are concerned about the malfunction.
An export said that while problems at an early stage occur often, satellites that pass the first stage of operation successfully usually do not break down.
“If the lifespan of a satellite that is running smoothly is suddenly cut short, there may be basic defects in the materials and parts,” he said.
Replacement satellites will be launched in preparation for the unplanned termination of intelligence-gathering satellites’ operating lives.
Depending on the cause of the malfunction, Radar No. 2, currently in orbit, and Radar No. 3, which is now under development for fiscal 2011 launch, may be affected.
As the malfunction has also threatened the establishment of a four-satellite system by 2011, there are concerns that national security may also be affected.
At a joint meeting of the Liberal Democratic Party’s defense-related sections at the end of last month, some members proposed an early commission of Radar No. 2. Others suggested that the development of Radar No. 3 be brought forward.
However, an official at the center said that even if Radar No. 2’s operation is advanced, it can only be done several days ahead of schedule. “As engineers are developing new technology to improve the image-gathering function of Radar No. 3, it’s difficult to move up development in terms of years,” he said.
The idea of launching a satellite similar to Radar No. 1 to replace the faulty satellite was rejected because it takes four years to manufacture and build a satellite and manufacturers have already stopped making some of the parts.
Katsuyuki Kawai, head of the LDP National Defense Division, said that in future the government should discuss a 16-satellite system with backup satellites.
As radar satellites are more difficult to manufacture and more expensive, they are launched on fewer occasions than optical satellites.
Some experts have cast doubts over whether such a policy will help improve radar satellite technology.
The government has invested more than 500 billion yen in developing intelligence-gathering satellites, but the program is confidential.
Shinya Matsuura, a journalist well-versed in space development, said that the development of radar satellites followed the government’s sudden decision to introduce spy satellites.
“There are problems in design and the orbit is not the best for the satellites,” he said.
Some experts even questioned the usefulness of radar satellites because images they have take have not been released.
The latest glitch has called into question whether the design, function and the system are as effective as they should be.
The official said that a promotion committee comprising officials from relevant ministries and agencies decided on the basic development policy, adding that the committee also receives advice from a committee of engineers.
“JAXA and manufacturers also evaluate the technology,” he said.
However, as JAXA and manufacturers evaluate the program separately, they do not study the problems together.
Matsuura said that the government should release information that can be declassified and that it needs to change its approach to improve its usability and functions.
“Technological progress has made it possible to manufacture compact information-gathering satellites at a low cost. The government should also study more effective ways of using radar satellites, such as combining earth observation and radar satellites,” he said.
Lawmakers, the government and engineers should work together to find ways to improve radar satellites.