Japan Launches Satellites, Eyes Space Business


The main satellite will enable scientists to calculate the density of carbon dioxide and methane from 56,000 locations on the Earth. Japan launched a satellite on Friday to monitor greenhouse gases along with seven smaller satellites in a mission that could boost business for the country’s cash-hungry space programme.

The H-2A rocket, carrying the biggest number of satellites ever for a Japanese rocket, took off from the tiny island of Tanegashima 1,000 km (620 miles) south of Tokyo, after a delay of two days because of poor weather.

“The launch was a significant one for the peaceful use of space, since the satellite will contribute to tackling the universal issue of global warming,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura said in a news conference.

“I think the strategic implementation of space development and use will grow from now on.” The main satellite will enable scientists to calculate the densities of carbon dioxide and methane from 56,000 locations on the Earth’s surface, which Japan hopes will contribute to global efforts to tackle climate change.

The greenhouse gas observation satellite separated from the rocket and is functioning normally, and four smaller satellites have also been successfully deployed so far, said a spokeswoman at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Japan’s space agency.

It is still unclear if the other three satellites on board have been deployed, she said.

The mission is also a test for Japan as it sets its sights on the satellite-launch business in the face of competition from Europe, the United States and Russia, as well as newer entrants such as China and India.

China launched a communications satellite for Nigeria in 2007 and launched Venezuela’s first satellite last year. India has also heated up the Asian space race, launching its first unmanned moon mission last October.

Japan clinched its first commercial satellite order earlier this month, when South Korea’s space agency asked Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to launch KOMPSAT-3, designed to take images of the Earth. The launch will be in 2011 or 2012.

COMPETITIVENESS

Experts hailed the KOMPSAT-3 deal as paving the way for more business in Japan, although price competitiveness remained an issue.

“Japan will try hard to bring costs down,” said Yuzo Suga, professor of global environment studies at Hiroshima Institute of Technology who uses data from satellites in his research.

“In the case of Earth-monitoring satellites, it’s becoming important to have multiple satellites so the observation is constant. Prices need to be kept low for that.”

Japan cut costs for the latest H-2A launch to a new low of 8.5 billion yen ($96 million), but it faces tough competition.

“Russia and China have a huge legacy of military space programmes,” said Lance Gatling, of aerospace consultants Gatling Associates.

He said Japan had made great strides on a limited budget, but that the price and limited availability of launch windows could hamper commercial launches. Launch dates at Japan’s Tanegashima station have to be agreed with local fishermen.

The latest satellites, including mini-satellites from JAXA, universities and private business, are being launched for free, but the space agency is considering charging for future launches.

More money would be welcome for JAXA, currently running on an annual budget of 188 billion yen ($2 billion), just a fraction of NASA’s $17 billion annual spending.

In another sign Japan is eager to expand its space programme, it ended a decades-long pacifist policy last year separating space development from the military and passed a law allowing military use of space.

Japan’s space programme was in tatters in the late 1990s after two unsuccessful launches of a previous rocket, the H-2. The programme suffered a further setback in 2003 when it had to destroy an H-2A rocket carrying two spy satellites minutes after launch as it veered off course.

But it safely launched its first lunar explorer last year and hopes to send astronauts to the moon by 2025. ($1=88.86 Yen)

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