Space: Japanese Space Program Heads For SpaceX


March 16, 2023: Japan has a rather effective space program using locally designed and built SLVs (satellite launch vehicle) and satellites. For over a decade Japanese firm have been developing the new H3 SLV whose first test launch in February was called off because the solid-fuel rocket would not launch. This H3 test involved delivering the three-ton ALOS-3 (Advanced Land Observing Satellite) into a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO). This is one of the more difficult orbits to achieve, because it is 36,000 kilometers out, and exact positioning is required in order to get the satellite to the proper position. A second launch effort on March 7 succeeded initially but the ALOS-3 payload was not delivered because the second stage of the SLV failed to operate correctly. The satellite was destroyed.

Seven H3 launches were planned for 2023. Testing will continue until all problems have been resolved. The future of Japan’s space program depends on getting the H3 to function as designed. H3 is a 53 meter (207 foot) long, 574-ton two-stage SLV that can lift up to four tons in to the highest orbits. Each H3 costs about $50 million to manufacture and launch.

The H2 SLV continues to be used and carried out its latest launch in January 2023. It was a success and there will be more launches into 2024, when the H2 program will end. The H2 has been the primary Japanese SLV since 1994. Since then, there have been upgrades that resulted in the H2A and H2B. The original H2 weighed 260 tons and was launched seven times with five successes between 1994 and 1999. The H2A was launched 46 times between 2001 and 2009. There was only one failure. H2A weight varied from 285 to 445 tons. The heavier SLV was first used in 2017 and the H3 as developed from this. Japan launched most of its spy satellite using H-2A SLVs. In 2020 Japan had two digital camera photo satellites and five radar satellites operational. Japan has been expanding that to ten photo and radar satellites.

Japan has long been a major producer of satellites and SLVs because Japan launched its first satellite in 1970 and became the fourth nation (after Russia, America and France) to do so. For decades Japan mainly launched scientific satellites. In the late 1990s Japan, alarmed at the threat of attack by North Korea, began developing and launching military satellites. The first two were launched in 2003, the third in 2006 and the fourth in 2007. Japan continues to build and launch its own photo, radar and ELINT (electronic intelligence) satellites. While Japan buys some launcher and satellite tech from foreign nations (mainly the U.S.), Japan has become quite proficient and self-sufficient in both areas.

By 2010 the cameras onboard Japanese photo satellites could make out objects as small as one meter (39 inches) in diameter. By 2013 a new Japanese photo satellite could detect objects .6 meters (two feet) in size. The best U.S. spy satellites can make out much smaller objects, but for Japan's needs, .6 meters is adequate. The radar satellites provide all-weather coverage.

Technically, the satellites are in violation of a 1969 Japanese law, which mandated Japan only use space for non-military purposes. To get around this these satellites are technically non-military and are not controlled by the military. 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 to keep an eye on North Korean nuclear weapons and ballistic missile efforts. This proved impossible to do. While two Japanese satellites were launched in early 2003, another two were destroyed during late 2003, when the rocket malfunctioned.

Japan had 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 needed their own spy satellites. It is believed that Japanese spy satellites are also being used to watch military developments in China and Russia.

The Japanese program has cost over three billion dollars so far. Much of this was spent to develop SLVs large and reliable enough for satellite work. The latest launch was the 35th successful launch for the H-2A, which has a 97.5 percent success rate. The similar H-2B SLV has carried out ten successful launches. Japanese SLVs have put nearly a hundred satellites into orbit since 1970. Most have been non-military and several were for other nations. Japanese SLVs are locally designed and manufactured. These rockets operate from a launch complex in southern Japan.

Later versions of the H-2A weighed up to 445 tons with a max payload of 15 tons. The H-2B variant weighs 531 tons and can put 16.5 tons into orbit. The new H3 SLV was supposed to have its first test launch in 2020. There were technical problems that have delayed test launches until 2023. The H-3 will specialize in putting satellites in high orbits. Because of the breakthroughs American firm SpaceX has made with their reusable (they land under their own power after launch) rockets, Japan is now working on an H4 SLV with that feature.

The Japanese photo satellites weigh about a ton, while the radar one weighs about a third more. The United States provided a lot of technical assistance on the design and construction of the satellites initially and Japan now builds 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.




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