Friday, February 23, 2018

Japan to Launch IGS-Optical 6 Reconnaissance Satellite into Space

Archive photo of H-IIA. Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA

Japan is gearing up to launch its flagship H-IIA rocket with IGS-Optical 6 - the newest satellite of its homegrown spy satellite program. Liftoff will take place on Monday, February 26, between 4:34 and 4:48 GMT (11:34 and 11:48 p.m. EST on Sunday, February 25).

The launch vehicle will thunder off from the Yoshinobu Launch Complex at the Tanegashima Space Center by igniting its core stage and two additional SRB-A solid rocket boosters. The H-IIA will complete a short vertical ascent and will then start heading south over the Pacific Ocean. The flight should last not longer than 20 minutes and will conclude with the insertion of the IGS-Optical 6 spacecraft into a Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO).

The launch was initially scheduled for February 25, but was delayed 24 hours due to weather conditions. The countdown campaign will commence some 13 and a half hours ahead of liftoff with the rocket’s rollout to the launch pad. Propellant loading operations will start about six hours later and after that final checks of the launch vehicle will be performed. The automated countdown sequence leading to the ignition of the rocket’s engines will begin at T-4:30 minutes.

The mission is tasked with the deployment of the IGS-Optical 6 satellite into SSO at an altitude of about 310 miles (500 kilometers), inclined 97.4 degrees.

Due to the military nature of the payload, very little is known when it comes to the spacecraft’s specifications. The satellite was built by Mitsubishi Electric Corporation (MELCO) and represents the third generation of optical imaging satellites of the Information Gathering Satellite (IGS) program.

IGS-Optical 6 will be operated by Japan’s Cabinet Satellite Intelligence Center (CSICE). Besides serving the country’s defense needs, it will be also used for civil natural disaster monitoring purposes.

The IGS project was initiated as a response to the 1998 North Korean missile test over Japan. The program’s main goal is to provide early warning of impending hostile launches in the region.

The IGS program came to life in March 2003 with the launch of IGS-Optical 1 and IGS-Radar 1 satellites into space. To date, 13 IGS satellites were orbited and one pair of spacecraft was lost in November 2003 due to a H-IIA launch failure. All the satellites were launched by H-IIA from Tanegashima Space Center. The latest satellite, named IGS-Radar 5, was delivered into orbit on March 17, 2017.

Generally, IGS satellites are equipped in optical reconnaissance payload or a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) for remote sensing. These instruments allow IGS to obtain optical imagery and high-resolution radar data reconnaissance for military and intelligence services.

According to Christopher W. Hughes, an expert on Japan’s military, at University of Warwick, UK, IGSs are military in nature and will serve an important function of developing Japan’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to respond to Chinese activities in and around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Furthermore, the system should reinforce Japan’s ability to offer space capabilities in the service of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

The 174-feet (53-meters) tall H-IIA is a two-stage booster operated by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries for Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). With a mass of about 285 metric tons, its “202” variant that will employed for Monday’s flight, is capable of launching up to 10 metric tons to low-Earth orbit (LEO) and 4.1 metric tons to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO). The rocket’s maiden flight took place in August 2001.

Monday’s launch will mark the third orbital mission for Japan in 2018 and the first flight of an H-IIA booster this year.

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