Japan Becomes A Military Space Player With Latest Launch

The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has accomplished some impressive things over the years. Between 2003 (when it was formed) and 2016, the agency has launched multiple satellites – ranging from x-ray and infrared astronomy to lunar and Venus atmosphere exploration probes – and overseen Japan’s participation in the International Space Station.

But in what is an historic mission – and a potentially controversial one – JAXA recently launched the first of three X-band defense communication satellites into orbit. By giving the Japanese Self-Defense Forces the ability to relay communications and commands to its armed forces, this satellite (known as DSN 2) represents an expansion of Japan’s military capability.

The launch took place on January 24th at 4:44 pm Japan Standard Time (JST) – or 0744 Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) – with the launch of a H-IIA rocket from Tanegashima Space Center. This was the thirty-second successful flight of the launch vehicle, and the mission was completed with the deployment of the satellite in Low-Earth Orbit – 35,000 km; 22,000 mi above the surface of the Earth.

Artist’s concept of a Japanese X-band military communications satellite. Credit: Japanese Ministry of Defense

Shortly after the completion of the mission, JAXA issued a press release stating the following:

“At 4:44 p.m., (Japan Standard Time, JST) January 24, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. and JAXA launched the H-IIA Launch Vehicle No. 32 with X-band defense communication satellite-2* on board. The launch and the separation of the satellite proceeded according to schedule. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. and JAXA express appreciation for the support in behalf of the successful launch. At the time of the launch the weather was fine, at 9 degrees Celsius, and the wind speed was 7.1 meters/second from the NW.”

This launch is part of a $1.1 billion program by the Japanese Defense Ministry to develop X-band satellite communications for the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). With the overall goal of deploying three x-band relay satellites into geostationary orbit, its intended purpose is to reduce the reliance of Japan’s military (and those of its allies) on commercial and international communications providers.

While this may seem like a sound strategy, it is a potential source of controversy in that it may skirt the edge of what is constitutionally permitted in Japan. In short, deploying military satellites is something that may be in violation of Japan’s post-war agreements, which the nation committed to as part of its surrender to the Allies. This includes forbidding the use of military force as a means of solving international disputes.

An H-2A rocket, Japan’s primary large-scale launch vehicle. Credit: JAXA

It also included placing limitations on its Self-Defense Forces so they would not be capable of independent military action. As is stated in Article 9 of the Constitution of Japan (passed in 1947):

“(1) Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
(2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

However, since 2014, the Japanese government has sought to reinterpret Article 9 of the constitution, claiming that it allows the JSDF the freedom to defend other allies in case of war. This move has largely been in response to mounting tensions with North Korea over its development of nuclear weapons, as well as disputes with China over issues of sovereignty in the South China Sea.

This interpretation has been the official line of the Japanese Diet since 2015, as part of a series of measures that would allow the JSDF to provide material support to allies engaged in combat internationally. This justification, which claims that Japan and its allies would be endangered otherwise, has been endorsed by the United States. However, to some observers, it may very well be interpreted as an attempt by Japan to re-militarize.

In the coming weeks, the DSN 2 spacecraft will use its on-board engine to position itself in geostationary orbit, roughly 35,800 km (22,300 mi) above the equator. Once there, it will commence a final round of in-orbit testing before commencing its 15-year term of service.

Further Reading: Spaceflight Now

Next Generation NASA/JAXA Global Weather Research Satellite thunders aloft from Japanese Spaceport

GPM Launch Seen From the Tanegashima Space Center
A Japanese H-IIA rocket with the NASA-Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory onboard, is seen launching from the Tanegashima Space Center on Friday, Feb. 28, 2014 (Japan Time), in Tanegashima, Japan; Thursday, Feb. 27, EST. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls[/caption]

NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, MARYLAND – A powerful, next generation weather observatory aimed at gathering unprecedented 3-D measurements of global rain and snowfall rates – and jointly developed by the US and Japan – thundered to orbit today (Feb. 27 EST, Feb. 28 JST) ) during a spectacular night time blastoff from a Japanese space port.

The Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory was launched precisely on time at 1:37 p.m. EST, 1837 GMT, Thursday, Feb. 27 (3:37 a.m. JST Friday, Feb. 28) atop a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIA rocket from the Tanegashima Space Center on Tanegashima Island off southern Japan.

Viewers could watch the spectacular liftoff live on NASA TV – which was streamed here at Universe Today.

“GPM’s precipitation measurements will look like a CAT scan,” Dr. Dalia Kirschbaum, GPM research scientist, told me during a prelaunch interview with the GPM satellite in the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

“The radar can scan through clouds to create a three dimensional view of a clouds structure and evolution.”

GPM lifts off on Feb. 27, EST (Feb. 28 JST) to begin its Earth-observing mission.  Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
GPM lifts off on Feb. 27, EST (Feb. 28, JST) to begin its Earth-observing mission. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

GPM is the lead observatory of a constellation of nine highly advanced Earth orbiting weather research satellites contributed by the US, Japan, Europe and India.

Indeed GPM will be the first satellite to measure light rainfall and snow, in addition to heavy tropical rainfall.

It will collect a treasure trove of data enabling the most comprehensive measurements ever of global precipitation every three hours – and across a wide swath of the planet where virtually all of humanity lives from 65 N to 65 S latitudes.

GPM orbits at an altitude of 253 miles (407 kilometers) above Earth – quite similar to the International Space Station (ISS).

The global precipitation data will be made freely available to climate researchers and weather forecasters worldwide in near real time – something long awaited and not possible until now.

Water and the associated water and energy cycles are the basis of all life on Earth.

Yet scientists lack a clear and comprehensive understanding of key rain and snow fall amounts on most of the globe – which is at the heart of humanity’s existence and future well being on the home planet.

Having an accurate catalog of the water and energy cycles will direct benefit society and impact people’s lives on a daily basis with improved weather forecasts, more advanced warnings of extreme weather conditions, aid farmers, help identify and determine the effects of global climate change.

Researchers will use the GPM measurements to study climate change, freshwater resources, floods and droughts, and hurricane formation and tracking.

“With this launch, we have taken another giant leap in providing the world with an unprecedented picture of our planet’s rain and snow,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in a NASA statement.

gpm-decal-smallGPM will help us better understand our ever-changing climate, improve forecasts of extreme weather events like floods, and assist decision makers around the world to better manage water resources.”

“The GPM spacecraft has been under development for a dozen years,” said GPM Project Manager Art Azarbarzin of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., in a prelaunch interview with Universe Today conducted inside the clean room with GPM before it’s shipment to Japan.

NASA’s next generation Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) observatory inside the clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, MD. Technicians at work on final processing during exclusive up-close inspection tour by Universe Today.  GPM is slated to launch on February 27, 2014 and will provide global measurements of rain and snow every 3 hours. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s next generation Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) observatory inside the clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, MD. Technicians at work on final processing during exclusive up-close inspection tour by Universe Today. GPM is slated to launch on February 27, 2014 and will provide global measurements of rain and snow every 3 hours. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“The GPM satellite was built in house by the dedicated team at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland,” Azarbarzin told me.

“It’s the largest satellite ever built at Goddard.”

Following the flawless blastoff, the nearly four ton GPM spacecraft separated from the Japanese rocket some 16 minutes later at an altitude of 247 miles (398 kilometers).

10 minutes later both of the spacecrafts life giving solar arrays deployed as planned.

Major components of the GPM Core Observatory labeled, including the GMI, DPR, HGAS, solar panels, and more. Credit: NASA Goddard
Major components of the GPM Core Observatory labeled, including the GMI, DPR, HGAS, solar panels, and more. Credit: NASA Goddard

“It is incredibly exciting to see this spacecraft launch,” said Azarbarzin, in a NASA statement. He witnessed the launch in Japan.

“This is the moment that the GPM Team has been working toward since 2006.”

“The GPM Core Observatory is the product of a dedicated team at Goddard, JAXA and others worldwide.”

“Soon, as GPM begins to collect precipitation observations, we’ll see these instruments at work providing real-time information for the scientists about the intensification of storms, rainfall in remote areas and so much more.”

The $933 Million observatory is a joint venture between the US and Japanese space agencies, NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

The 3850 kilogram GPM satellite is equipped with two instruments – an advanced, higher resolution dual -frequency precipitation (DPR) radar instrument (Ku and Ka band) built by JAXA in Japan and the GPM microwave imager (GMI) built by Ball Aerospace in the US.

The GPM observatory will replace the aging NASA/JAXA Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite launched back in 1997 and also jointly developed by NASA and JAXA.

“GPM is the direct follow-up to the currently orbiting TRMM satellite,” Azarbarzin explained to me.

“TRMM is reaching the end of its usable lifetime. After GPM launches we hope it has some overlap with observations from TRMM.”

GPM is vital to continuing the TRMM measurements. It will help provide improved forecasts and advance warning of extreme super storms like Hurricane Sandy and Super Typhoon Haiyan.

“TRMM was only designed to last three years but is still operating today. We hope GPM has a similar long life,” said Azarbarzin.

NASA astronaut Paul Richards discusses GPM at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on Fe. 27, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA astronaut Paul Richards (STS-102) discusses GPM at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on Feb. 27, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing GPM reports and on-site coverage at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

And watch for Ken’s continuing planetary and human spaceflight news about Curiosity, Opportunity, Chang’e-3, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, LADEE, MAVEN, MOM, Mars, Orion and more.

Ken Kremer

Visualization of the GPM Core Observatory and Partner Satellites. Credit: NASA
Visualization of the GPM Core Observatory and Partner Satellites. GPM launched on Feb. 27 from Japan. Credit: NASA
NASA/JAXA Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) satellite inside the clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, MD, undergoes final processing during exclusive up-close inspection tour by Universe Today:   Dr. Art Azarbarzin/NASA GPM project manager, Dr. Ken Kremer/Universe Today and Dr. Dalia Kirschbaum/NASA GPM research scientist.    Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA/JAXA Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) satellite inside the clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, MD, undergoes final processing during exclusive up-close inspection tour by Universe Today: Dr. Art Azarbarzin/NASA GPM project manager, Dr. Ken Kremer/Universe Today and Dr. Dalia Kirschbaum/NASA GPM research scientist. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA/JAXA Precipitation Measurement Satellite ‘GO’ for Feb. 27 Launch – Watch Live Here on NASA TV

Visualization of the GPM Core Observatory and Partner Satellites. GPM is slated to launch on Feb. 27 from Japan. Credit: NASA
See launch animation, Shinto ceremony, Rocket roll out and more below[/caption]

NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, MARYLAND – Blastoff of the powerful and revolutionary new NASA/JAXA rain and snow precipitation measurement satellite atop a Japanese rocket from a tiny offshore island launch pad is now less than 24 hours away on Thursday, Feb. 27, EST (Feb. 28 JST).

The Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory aimed at improving forecasts of extreme weather and climate change research has been given a green light for launch atop a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIA rocket from the Tanegashima Space Center on Tanegashima Island off southern Japan.

Roll out of the H-IIA launch vehicle from the Vehicle Assembly Building is scheduled for this evening, Feb. 26 at 11 p.m. EST.

Update: rocket rolled out. Photo below, plus watch streaming NASA TV below.

Following the Launch Readiness Review, mission managers approved the GO for liftoff.

The H-IIA rocket with GPM rolls to its launch pad in Japan! Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
The H-IIA rocket with GPM rolls to its launch pad in Japan! Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Japanese team members also prayed at a Shinto ceremony for blessings for a successful launch at the Ebisu Shrine, the first shrine in a traditional San-ja Mairi, or Three Shrine Pilgrimage on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014 – see photo below.

However, the team also set a newly revised launch time of 1:37 p.m. EST (18:37 UTC, and Feb. 28 at 3:37 a.m. JST).



Live streaming video by Ustream

Mission managers adjusted the H-IIA launch time after concerns raised by a collision avoidance analysis between the GPM spacecraft and the International Space Station (ISS).

gpm launch

GPM will fly at an altitude of 253 miles (407 kilometers) above Earth – quite similar to the ISS.

It’s coverage runs over virtually the entire populated globe from 65 N to 65 S latitudes.

NASA plans live coverage of the launch on Feb. 27 beginning at 12 noon EST on NASA Television.

It will be streamed live at: http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

The $933 Million observatory is a joint venture between the US and Japanese space agencies, NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

NASA’s next generation Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) observatory inside the clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, MD. Technicians at work on final processing during exclusive up-close inspection tour by Universe Today.  GPM is slated to launch on February 27, 2014 and will provide global measurements of rain and snow every 3 hours. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s next generation Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) observatory inside the clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, MD. Technicians at work on final processing during exclusive up-close inspection tour by Universe Today. GPM is slated to launch on February 27, 2014 and will provide global measurements of rain and snow every 3 hours. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

GPM has a one-hour launch window. In case of any delays, the team will be required to conduct a thorough new collision avoidance analysis to ensure safety.

Weather forecast is excellent at this time.

Watch this GPM Launch animation:

Video caption: NASA/JAXA GPM Core Observatory Launch Animation

GPM is a next-generation satellite that will provide global, near real time observations of rain and snow from space. Such data is long awaited by climate scientists and weather forecasters.

It will open a new revolutionary era in global weather observing and climate science. Therefore it will have a direct impact on society and people’s daily lives worldwide.

The mission will significantly advance our understanding of Earth’s water and energy cycles and improve forecasting of extreme weather events.

The 3850 kilogram GPM satellite is equipped with two instruments – an advanced, higher resolution dual -frequency precipitation (DPR) radar instrument (Ku and Ka band) built by JAXA in Japan and the GPM microwave imager (GMI) built by Ball Aerospace in the US.

Major components of the GPM Core Observatory labeled, including the GMI, DPR, HGAS, solar panels, and more. Credit: NASA Goddard
Major components of the GPM Core Observatory labeled, including the GMI, DPR, HGAS, solar panels, and more. Credit: NASA Goddard

“The GPM satellite was built in house at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland,” Art Azarbarzin, GPM project manager, told Universe Today during my exclusive up-close clean room inspection tour of the huge satellite as final processing was underway.

Researchers will use the GPM measurements to study climate change, freshwater resources, floods and droughts, and hurricane formation and tracking.

“GPM will join a worldwide constellation of current and planned satellites,” Azarbarzin told me during an interview in the Goddard cleanroom beside GPM.

“GPM is the direct follow-up to the currently orbiting TRMM satellite,” Azarbarzin explained.

“TRMM is reaching the end of its usable lifetime. After GPM launches we hope it has some overlap with observations from TRMM.”

“The Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) observatory will provide high resolution global measurements of rain and snow every 3 hours,” Dalia Kirschbaum, GPM research scientist, told me during an interview at Goddard.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing GPM reports and on-site coverage at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

And watch for Ken’s continuing planetary and human spaceflight news about Curiosity, Opportunity, Chang’e-3, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, LADEE, MAVEN, MOM, Mars, Orion and more.

Ken Kremer

GPM: Three Shrine Pilgrimage  Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) team members bow at the Ebisu Shrine, the first shrine in a traditional San-ja Mairi, or Three Shrine Pilgrimage, where the team prays on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014 for a successful launch, Tanegashima Island, Japan.    Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
GPM: Three Shrine Pilgrimage Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) team members bow at the Ebisu Shrine, the first shrine in a traditional San-ja Mairi, or Three Shrine Pilgrimage, where the team prays on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014 for a successful launch, Tanegashima Island, Japan. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
NASA/JAXA Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) satellite inside the clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, MD, undergoes final processing during exclusive up-close inspection tour by Universe Today:   Dr. Art Azarbarzin/NASA GPM project manager, Dr. Ken Kremer/Universe Today and Dr. Dalia Kirschbaum/NASA GPM research scientist.    Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA/JAXA Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) satellite inside the clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, MD, undergoes final processing during exclusive up-close inspection tour by Universe Today: Dr. Art Azarbarzin/NASA GPM project manager, Dr. Ken Kremer/Universe Today and Dr. Dalia Kirschbaum/NASA GPM research scientist. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Powerful New Next-Gen US/Japan GPM Satellite to Revolutionize Global Precipitation Observations and Climate Science Research

NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, MARYLAND – Weather researchers and forecasters worldwide are gushing with excitement in the final days leading to blastoff of the powerful, new Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory – built by NASA in a joint effort with Japan.

GPM is a next-generation satellite that will provide global, near real time observations of rain and snow from space and thereby open a new revolutionary era in global weather observing and climate science. Therefore it will have a direct impact on society and people’s daily lives worldwide.

The team is counting down to liftoff in less than 5 days, on Feb. 27 at 1:07 PM EST from the Tanegashima Space Center, on Tanegashima Island off southern Japan, atop the highly reliable Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIA rocket.

The GPM launch to low Earth orbit was delayed by both natural and manmade disasters – namely the 2011 Fukushima earthquake in Japan as well as the ridiculous US government shutdown in Oct. 2013. That’s the same foolish shutdown that also delayed NASA’s new MAVEN Mars orbiter and numerous other US space & science projects.

Visualization of the GPM Core Observatory satellite orbiting the planet earth.  Credit: NASA Goddard
Visualization of the GPM Core Observatory satellite orbiting the planet earth. Credit: NASA Goddard

The $933 Million mission is a joint venture between NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Japan’s space agency.

The mission will significantly advance our understanding of Earth’s water and energy cycles and improve forecasting of extreme weather events.

It is equipped with an advanced, higher resolution dual -frequency precipitation (DPR) radar instrument (Ku and Ka band) built by JAXA in Japan and the GPM microwave imager (GMI) built by Ball Aerospace in the US.

“The GPM satellite was built in house at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland,” Art Azarbarzin, GPM project manager, told Universe Today during my exclusive up-close clean room inspection tour of the huge satellite as final processing was underway.

Global Precipitation Management Measurement (GPM) observatory satellite inside the clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center undergoes final processing - side view. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) observatory satellite inside the clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center undergoes final processing – side view. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Shortly after my tour of GPM, the 3850 kilogram satellite was carefully packed up for shipment to the Japanese launch site.

“GPM will join a worldwide constellation of current and planned satellites,” Azarbarzin told me during an interview in the Goddard cleanroom with GPM.

gpm-decal-smallAnd the imminent launch to augment the existing satellite constellation can’t come soon enough, he noted.

The GPM observatory will replace the aging NASA/JAXA Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM), satellite launched back in 1997.

“GPM is the direct follow-up to the currently orbiting TRMM satellite,” Azarbarzin explained.

“TRMM is reaching the end of its usable lifetime. GPM launches on February 27, 2014 and we hope it has some overlap with observations from TRMM.”

“The Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) observatory will provide high resolution global measurements of rain and snow every 3 hours,” Dalia Kirschbaum, GPM research scientist, told me during an interview at Goddard.

NASA’s next generation Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) observatory inside the clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, MD. Technicians at work on final processing during exclusive up-close inspection tour by Universe Today.  GPM is slated to launch on February 27, 2014 and will provide global measurements of rain and snow every 3 hours. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s next generation Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) observatory inside the clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, MD. Technicians at work on final processing during exclusive up-close inspection tour by Universe Today. GPM is slated to launch on February 27, 2014 and will provide global measurements of rain and snow every 3 hours. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

It is vital to continuing the TRMM measurements and will help provide improved forecasts and advance warning of extreme super storms like Hurricane Sandy and Super Typhoon Haiyan, Azarbarzin and Kirschbaum explained.

Researchers will use the GPM measurements to study climate change, freshwater resources, floods and droughts, and hurricane formation and tracking.

“The water-cycle, so familiar to all school-age young scientists, is one of the most interesting, dynamic, and important elements in our studies of the Earth’s weather and climate,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, in a statement.

“GPM will provide scientists and forecasters critical information to help us understand and cope with future extreme weather events and fresh water resources.”

Tanegashima Space Center, on Tanegashima Island off southern Japan
GPM satellite launch site at Tanegashima Space Center, Tanegashima Island, Japan. Credit: NASA

NASA TV will carry the launch live with commentary starting at 12 Noon EST on Feb. 27.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing GPM reports and onsite coverage at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

And watch for Ken’s continuing planetary and human spaceflight news about Curiosity, Opportunity, Chang’e-3, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, LADEE, MAVEN, MOM, Mars, Orion and more.

Ken Kremer

NASA/JAXA Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) satellite inside the clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, MD, undergoes final processing during exclusive up-close inspection tour by Universe Today:   Dr. Art Azarbarzin/NASA GPM project manager, Dr. Ken Kremer/Universe Today and Dr. Dalia Kirschbaum/NASA GPM research scientist.    Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA/JAXA Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) satellite inside the clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, MD, undergoes final processing during exclusive up-close inspection tour by Universe Today: Dr. Art Azarbarzin/NASA GPM project manager, Dr. Ken Kremer/Universe Today and Dr. Dalia Kirschbaum/NASA GPM research scientist. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Japan to Launch Venus Orbiter and Solar Sail Missions

IKAROS - solar sail from Japan. Image: JAXA

Bad weather postponed a scheduled multi-mission launch of an H-IIA rocket from Japan early Tuesday, which includes the first Japanese probe to Venus and an experimental solar sail. The next launch attempt for the “Akatsuki” Venus Climate Orbiter and the solar sail called IKAROS will be Thursday, May 20, at 21:58 UTC (May 20 at 5:58 EDT) – which is May 21 at 6:58 in Japan. Akatsuki is Japan’s first mission to Venus, and it will work closely with the ESA’s Venus Express, already at Venus. Also called Planet C, the box-shaped orbiter should arrive at Venus in December and observe the planet from an elliptical orbit, from a distance of between 300 and 80,000 kilometers (186 to 49,600 miles), looking for — among other things — signs of lightning and active volcanoes.

[/caption]
Another payload is the solar sail, or “space yacht” IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun). This 320kg, 1.8m-wide, disc-shaped spacecraft will deploy an ultra-thin, ultra-light, 14 meter sail that will propel the structure from the radiation pressure from sunlight hitting it.

“The purpose of IKAROS is to demonstrate the technology of the Solar Power Sail,” said Osamu Mori, project leader of IKAROS. “Simply put, the solar sail is a ‘space yacht.’ A yacht moves forward on water, pushed by wind captured in its sails. A solar sail is propelled by sunlight instead of wind, so it’s a dream spaceship – it doesn’t require an engine or fuel. Part of IKAROS’s sail is covered by a solar cell made of an ultra-thin film, which generates electricity from sunlight.”

So far, solar sails have only been tested, but never flown successfully. It is hoped IKAROS will be the world’s first solar-powered sail, and that the structure will sail towards Venus, following Akatsuki.

The experimental sail is thinner than a human hair, is also equipped with thin-film solar cells to generate electricity, creating what JAXA calls “a hybrid technology of electricity and pressure.”

To control the path of IKAROS, engineers will change the angle at which sunlight particles bounce off the sail.

Akatsuki and IKAROS on the launch pad Taken on May 17, 2010, about 24 hours before the planned launch of Akatsuki and IKAROS toward Venus. They are stacked aboard an H-IIA rocket. Credit: Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd.

If you are a member of The Planetary Society, your name will be heading to Venus on both Akatsuki and IKAROS. The Planetary Society, a long-time proponent of solar sail technology, and Japan’s space exploration center, JSPEC/JAXA, have an agreement to collaborate and cooperate on public outreach and on technical information and results from IKAROS, which will help TPS plan for its upcoming launch of its own solar sail vehicle, LightSail-1, which they hope to launch in early 2011.

Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Blog has more details about the two missions and TPS’s involvement.

The H-IIA will also carry four other small satellites, developed by Japanese universities and other institutions. They include:

The 2-pound Negai CubeSat, developed by Soka University of Japan. Negai will test an information processing system during a three-week mission.

The WASEDA-SAT2, developed by Waseda University. The 2.6-pound spacecraft will conduct technology experiments in orbit.

The 3.3-pound KSAT spacecraft developed by Kagoshima University will conduct Earth observation experiments.

The 46-pound UNITEC-1 satellite from the Japanese University Space Engineering Consortium will test computer technologies and broadcast radio waves from deep space for decoding by amateur radio operators.

The rocket will launch from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan.

For more information on IKAROS, read this interview with the project leader, Osamu Mori