Japan has blown up a rocket carrying two spy satellites for monitoring secretive neighbour North Korea minutes after launching it, echoing failures that dogged its space programme in the late 1990s. North Korea is believed to be developing nuclear weapons, and the satellites, along with two others launched in March, had been promoted as a significant boost to Japanese intelligence gathering.
The failure on Saturday is an extreme embarrassment for Japan just weeks after neighbouring China put a man into space. There was no immediate word on the cost of the launch. A spokesman for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said that part of a booster rocket had not separated as expected.
The Japanese-made H2-A rocket was shown blasting off into a cloudy sky to applause from observers at the launch site on the tiny island of Tanegashima, some 620 miles south of Tokyo, where Japan’s launch centre is located. Just minutes later, though, an announcement was made that the rocket would not be able to complete its mission and had been destroyed by the launch controllers. “We verified ignition of the second stage, but after that we just didn’t know,” a harried official told reporters at Tanegashima. “This was a real shock,” said an official with the Cabinet Satellite Intelligence Centre, which oversees the two spy satellites in orbit and was responsible for the two destroyed on Saturday.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi termed the result “unfortunate” and directed officials to determine what went wrong as soon as possible, Kyodo news agency said. PREVIOUS FAILURES The launch of the first two satellites earlier this year gave Japan its first independent means of scrutinising North Korea from space at a time of growing crisis on the Korean peninsula over the reclusive communist state’s nuclear ambitions. Unspecified technical problems had twice postponed the launch, originally scheduled for September. It was then delayed a third time due to problems with the H-2A rocket.
This was the third major launch failure for Japan’s space programme and is likely to severely damage confidence after a string of successes. In November 1999, controllers were forced to blow up an earlier edition of the H-2A, the H-2, eight minutes after its launch. A satellite was lost as a result, and the H-2 programme was abandoned a month later. There was another unsuccessful launch in 1998. The blow this time will be especially severe because of the loss of the spy satellites, which Tokyo was counting on to use in surveillance of North Korea.
The satellite deployment was planned after Pyongyang’s 1998 test-firing of a Taepodong ballistic missile, which passed over Japan # showing that major population areas, including Tokyo, were within the missile’s estimated 600 mile range. Pyongyang denounced the March launch as a hostile act that could set off an arms race in the region. Officials sought to play down Saturday’s loss. “We still have two other satellites up there,” the official at the Cabinet Satellite Intelligence Centre said. “We’ll just have to use them to their fullest capacity.” But the accident will clearly be a setback for Japan’s rocket launch programme, which is due to be taken over by the main manufacturer of the H-2A, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, in less than two years.