Japan Launches Spy Satellite Under Veil of Secrecy

In an unpublicized launchlacking fanfare, an H-2A rocket successfully boosted Japan's most advanced spysatellite to orbit on Saturday from the country's island space center.

The 174-foot-tall launcherlifted off at 0121 GMT Saturday (8:21 p.m. EST Friday) from Launch Pad No. 1 atthe Yoshinobu complex on the southern shore of Tanegashima Island. The rocket's launch occurredat 10:21 a.m. local time.

The two-stage rocket turnedsouth from Tanegashima and jettisoned a pair of solid fuel-burning boosters twominutes into the flight. The hydrogen-fueled first and second stages propelledthe top secret Information Gathering Satellite into a polar orbit about 15minutes after leaving Earth.

Japanesegovernment officials declared the launch a success, according to newsreports.

The mission was shrouded insecrecy at the space center, which is operated by the Japan Aerospace ExplorationAgency. The space agency released no information on the launch, and a JAXA webcamera was turned away from the launch complex after the H-2A rocket rolled tothe pad.

The supposed payload was amore than $500 million satellite outfitted with an optical camera and telescopeto supply imagery to the Japanese government for intelligence, defense andcivilian remote sensing applications. The spacecraft will become the fifthoperational member of Japan's spy satellite fleet.

Two optical reconnaissancecraft and two satellites with ground-mapping radars were deployed on previouslaunches. Radars in orbit can collect all-weather imagery during day and nightpasses.

Another set of spysatellites were lost in an H-2A launch failure in 2003, the only blemish in 16flights of Japan's workhorse launcher.

Japan established thespace-based reconnaissance program after North Korea fired a test missile overJapanese territory in 1998. The country's spy satellites have becomeincreasingly more advanced since then, but officials have provided no officialspecifications on the satellite launched Saturday.

Another NorthKorean missile test over Japan in April prompted further consideration ofan early warning satellite with an infrared sensor dedicated to detectingmissile launches.

Saturday's flight was thethird Japanese space launch of the year, including the maiden launch of the beefedup H-2B rocket with the HTV cargo ship for the International Space Station.

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Stephen Clark is the Editor of Spaceflight Now, a web-based publication dedicated to covering rocket launches, human spaceflight and exploration. He joined the Spaceflight Now team in 2009 and previously wrote as a senior reporter with the Daily Texan. You can follow Stephen's latest project at SpaceflightNow.com and on Twitter.