Japanese rocket rejoins space race


Wed, Jan 25, 2006 - Page 5

Japan yesterday launched the leading rocket in its space program for the first time in nearly a year, putting a new satellite into orbit.

The H-2A rocket, whose launch had been delayed several times since September due to technical problems and bad weather, lifted off from Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan at 10:33am and split 16 minutes later.

"We were able to launch the H-2A rocket on time and release the satellite as we planned. We are very happy about the success," Keiji Tachikawa, president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), told reporters.

The domestically-produced rocket was carrying one of the world's largest land observation satellites, which can capture images night and day from regions hit by natural disasters.

The satellite can also be used to draft maps and survey natural resources, with the information to be shared with other Asian nations, the space agency said.

Japan had spent ¥53.5 billion (US$470 million) over a decade to develop the satellite.

Japan in Feb. 2005 successfully launched a H-2A rocket with a satellite to forecast weather.

That was its first launch since a rocket carrying a spy satellite to monitor North Korea failed in November 2003.

"This launch was our first firm step forward toward regaining the world's confidence in our rocket technology. We have learned from our past mistakes," Tsukasa Mito, JAXA executive director said.

Pressure has mounted on the Japanese space program to show progress as China, a neighbor and growing competitor, presses ahead in space and established space countries take the lead in the lucrative satellite market.

The 2003 failure was all the more embarrassing as it came one month after China became the third country after the US and the Soviet Union to launch a successful manned space flight.

While few would feel Japan needs to prove itself in technology, the world's second largest economy is looking for a share of the market in launching satellites.

"For us to to compete in the international marketplace, we still have to sharpen our system as a whole," Mamoru Endo, JAXA rocket project manager said.

"We had to postpone this launch for some time. But by taking firm steps like these, which insurance firms would be watching in the commercial market, I think we can make a good transition into the private launch market," Endo said.

The space agency admitted a new setback last month when it said a Japanese spacecraft likely failed on its landmark mission to collect samples from an asteroid on its first attempt.

The Hayabusa spacecraft, which in November approached the asteroid 290 million kilometers from Earth, went out of control because of a gas burst caused by leaking fuel.

The unmanned spacecraft had been due to drop a capsule of asteroid dust in the Australian outback in June 2007.

But the agency has said it now expected the spacecraft back in June 2010 as it will be another three years before it is in an ideal position to embark on the long journey back to Earth.

Japan plans to launch another H-2A rocket in about a month, but officials suggested it would be later than the original launch schedule of Feb. 15.