The successful launch Saturday of the last of a fleet of four reconnaissance satellites significantly boosts Japan's ability to gather independent intelligence and re-establishes Tokyo as a major player in Asia's accelerating space race.
Previously, Japan had to rely more heavily on its main ally, the United States, for spy satellite data.
I welcome the success of the launch, and I hope Japan's space program will mark results that are appropriate for a leading nation in space,'' said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in a statement. The satellite lifted off aboard an H-2A rocket from the remote island of Tanegashima.
Japan started its spy satellite program in 1998 after North Korea launched a missile over the country's main island. The Japanese program has been plagued by delays and setbacks -- including a spectacular mid-air explosion three years ago and problems with optics aboard the probes.
But officials said Monday the latest satellite had attained its orbit and was functioning without problems. A prototype for future more advanced probes was also launched aboard the rocket.
The satellite will undergo a three-month test period,'' said Yasuhiro Itakura of the Cabinet office in charge of the program. But it is functioning fine so far.''
The launch, which was delayed three times because of bad weather, reaffirms Japan as one of Asia's top space powers. Officials stress the Japanese-designed-and-built H-2A rocket has a better than 90 percent success rate in its 12 launches to date, which is comparable to other advanced countries.
Tokyo needed the boost.
In November 2003, Japan's second spy satellite was aborted and the spacecraft exploded in a fireball. A short time later, China put its first astronauts in orbit, establishing itself as the leader in Asia's push into space.
Last month, China blasted a satellite out of orbit with a ground-based missile and last week, Pakistan tested one of its most advanced long-range missiles. India's rocket development efforts are also rapidly advancing.
These military programs have influenced Japan's goals in space.
Japan has limited its space program to non-military uses since 1969. Late last year, the ruling party proposed the military be allowed to mount space missions, as long as they were for defensive purposes.
Japan, following China's lead, is also mulling the possibility of launching manned space flights. It has yet to send astronauts into space, though Japanese crew members have flown aboard U.S. Space Shuttle flights.
With China planning a moon mission and rapidly improving its space program, Japan is at a crucial stage,'' The Nikkei, a major business daily, said in an editorial. We must continue to have successful launches.''
Japan's spy satellites have been slammed by critics as inadequate -- the quality of the photos they provide is far worse than their U.S. counterparts.
The improved version isn't due for launch until 2009, after the first two satellites complete their planned five-year lifespan.
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