April 1, 2007:
Japan has lost the use of one of its two radar satellites. The "No. 1
radar satellite", which went into orbit in March 2003, was supposed to last for
five years. But the bird has been having electrical problems. It's uncertain if
the $357 million satellite will be returned to service, or abandoned.
It was only a month ago, that Japan launched its
fourth spy satellite into orbit, using a Japanese made rocket. The third bird
was launched last September. The first two were launched in 2003. The 2006
launch was the second of two optical reconnaissance satellites. The cameras on
board can make out objects as small as one meter in diameter. The best U.S. spy
satellites can make out much smaller objects, but for Japan's needs, one meter
is adequate. The other two birds carry radar, providing all weather coverage.
Technically, the satellites are in violation of a 1969 Japanese law, which
mandated Japan to only use space for non-military purposes. To get around this,
these birds are technically non-military, and are not controlled by the
Japan had long refrained from launching military
satellites, but this changed when North Korea fired a ballistic missile over
Japan in 1998. Japan promptly set out to get eight surveillance satellites in
orbit by 2006, in order to keep an eye on North Korean nuclear weapons and
ballistic missile efforts. Japan has
long relied on commercial photo satellites, and whatever they could get from
the Americans. But for high resolution shots, on demand, of North Korea, and
electronic eavesdropping from space, they need their own spy satellites. It is
believed that the Japanese spy satellites are also being used to watch military
developments in China and Russia.
The Japanese program has cost about two billion
dollars. The optical satellites weigh about a ton, while the radar ones weigh
about a third more. The United States provided a lot of technical assistance on
the design and construction of the satellites. Japan built its own rockets to
launch them. Like most spy satellite users, Japan does not report on how
effective they are. It is known that Japan could get more detailed photos from
commercial satellites. But those are not controlled by the Japanese government.