Japan successfully launches an intelligence-gathering satellite to watch for North Korean missiles

An H2A rocket is lifted from the launch pad at Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima, southern Japan Friday, Jan. 12, 2024. Japan on Friday launched the rocket carrying a government intelligence-gathering satellite on a mission to watch movements at military sites in North Korea and improve natural disaster response. (Kyodo News via AP)
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By MARI YAMAGUCHI

Associated Press

TOKYO (AP) — Japan successfully launched a rocket carrying a government intelligence-gathering satellite Friday on a mission to watch movements at military sites in North Korea and to improve responses to natural disasters.

The H2A rocket, launched by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., lifted off from the Tanegashima Space Center in southwestern Japan, carrying the optical satellite as part of Tokyo’s reconnaissance effort to rapidly build up its military capability.

The government’s Cabinet Satellite Intelligence Center and MHI declared the launch a success, saying that the Optical-8 satellite was successfully separated from the rocket and entered its planned orbit.

The optical satellite can capture detailed images, though its capability is limited in severe weather. Japan began the intelligence-gathering satellite program after a North Korean missile flew over Japan in 1998. Japan aims to set up a network of 10 satellites, including those carrying radars that can operate at night or in severe weather, to spot and provide early warning for possible missile launches.

Applauding the successful launch, Hiroki Yasuda, a senior official at the Cabinet Satellite Intelligence Center, told reporters that the Optical-8 is crucial to Japan’s information-gathering capability.

“With the security environment surrounding Japan becoming increasingly severe and uncertain and growing natural disaster risks, intelligence satellites are crucial for foreign affairs, defense and security as well as disaster response purposes,” Yasuda said. “We need to steadily reinforce our intelligence capability.”

It will take several months for the satellite to start supplying information, Yasuda said.

Yasuda said the existing network of intelligence satellites, including those used beyond operational life, captured images of quake-hit western Japan Japan for disaster response purposes. The New Year’s Day temblors killed 215 people and caused extensive damages to buildings, roads and lifeline.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government, under its national security strategy adopted in 2022, is pushing to deploy long-range U.S.-made Tomahawk and other cruise missiles as early as next year to build up more strike capability, breaking from the country’s exclusively self-defense-only postwar principle, citing rapid weapons advancement in China and North Korea.

Friday’s liftoff is being closely watched ahead of a planned launch of a new flagship H3 rocket developed by MHI and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency as the successor to the H2A. The first test flight of the new rocket failed last year.

Masayuki Eguchi, MHI executive in charge of the defense and space segment, said Friday’s successful launch boosts encouragement and motivation for a successful launch of the H3, now planned for Feb. 15.

The MHI-operated, liquid-fuel H2A rocket with two solid-fuel sub-rockets has had 42 consecutive successes since a failure in 2003, with a 98% success rate. H2A will retire after two more launches later this year.