The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency launched two satellites into space Friday (Dec. 22) on separate missions to study the Earth and test new ion engine technology.
A JAXA H-2A rocket launched from the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan carrying the Global Change Observation Mission-Climate (GCOM-C) satellite and the Super Low Altitude Test Satellite (SLATS). Liftoff occurred at 8:26 p.m. EST (0126 GMT) on Friday, though the local time was 10:26 a.m. Saturday Japan Standard Time.[Earth from Space in 2017: DigitalGlobe's Most Impactful Photos]
The GCOM-C satellite, nicknamed Shikisai (which means "Color" in Japanese), is an Earth-observing satellite designed to be the first in a pair to monitor Earth's climate from space over 15 years. It carries instruments to study Earth's carbon cycle, clouds, aerosols, ocean color, vegetation, and snow and ice, according to a JAXA mission description.
"GCOM is expected to play an important role in monitoring both global water circulation and climate change, and examining the health of Earth from space," JAXA officials wrote.
The SLATS satellite (nicknamed Tsubame, or "Swallow") is on a technology demonstration mission to test how ion engines could help keep satellites aloft in "super low orbits" below 186 miles (300 kilometers).
"This orbit is an undeveloped region and it has yet to be fully utilized by satellites," JAXA officials wrote in mission overview. "Satellites in a super low orbit will bring benefits such as high-resolution observations for optical imagers, low power transmissions for active sensors, and cost reductions for satellite manufacturing and launches."
Such a low orbit will subject SLATS to 1,000 times the atmospheric drag on satellites in higher orbits between 372 and 497 miles (600-800 km), JAXA officials said. Even the International Space Station is in a higher orbit of about 248 miles (400 km).
"In order to solve the atmospheric drag issue, JAXA has adopted an ion engine," JAXA officials wrote. "The ion engine uses fuel 10 times more efficiently than gas jets. Furthermore, we are developing a compact satellite to minimize air resistance, and will verify that our technology can support orbiting at super low altitudes over an extended period of time."
JAXA's successful satellite launch on Friday came just over one minute before another rocket launch.
The U.S. spaceflight company SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying 10 Iridium Next communications satellites into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The launch created dazzling views for spectators across Southern California.