Tag Archives: Japan

Michibiki 4 (QZS-4) launched aboard H-IIA

A Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIA rocket placed the Michibiki 4 spacecraft into orbit yesterday.  This is the latest element of Japan’s indigenous satellite navigation constellation.  The Michibiki constellation, which means “guiding the way”, is also called QZS – quasi-zenith satellite – because the complementary orbits of the four spacecraft will ensure that there is always a satellite near the zenith (as long as you’re in the Eastern Hemisphere, anyway, and particularly near a band from Japan to Australia).  They are all intended to operate at geosynchronous altitude, much higher than the GPS constellation, but at a significant inclination.  Geostationary satellites orbit on the plane of the Earths’ equator, which allows them to appear fixed in the sky.  Since these have an inclined orbit, they will trace a figure-8 pattern in the sky over the course of a day.  This variation will give GPS receivers something to track.  Yes, I did say GPS — Japan says this will be fully compatible with GPS signals.  It will be particularly beneficial in the dense urban areas of Japan, where GPS struggles to be accurate due to all the buildings blocking satellite signals.  With satellites that stand high in the sky all the time, it will be much easier to get enough signals for a fix.

This was H-IIA’s thirty-sixth launch.


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H-2A places a Japanese spysat into orbit

Japan has launched their newest radar spy satellite, the Information Gathering Satellite (IGS) Radar 5, aboard the H-2A rocket from Tanegashima Space Center.  It joins an existing constellation of spy satellites which Japan began assembling in 1998 following a North Korean missile launch that flew over Japanese territory.  Officially, the IGS program supports civilian needs, such as disaster awareness, but the unspoken main goal is to keep tabs on Japan’s enemies.  This launch of course was not in response to last week’s North Korean missile tests; satellites and launch vehicles take years to plan and procure.  But I am sure Japan hopes for it to send a message all the same: we are watching.

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Three days, three launches: ERG, Star One D1/JCSAT 15, and TanSat

2016 is wrapping up with some fireworks: three orbital rocket launches this week, and then possibly up to three more next week!

First off, on Tuesday, the Exploration of Energization and Radiation in Geospace, or ERG, spacecraft (to be renamed Arase after postlaunch checkout, after a river near the launch site) blasted off from the Uchinoura Space Center on the island of Kyushu, Japan, atop an Epsilon rocket.  The all-solid-prop Epsilon is a lower-cost replacement to the legacy Mu series of lighter-weight rockets, designed to require a very small launch team and capable of rapid deployment and hopefully to become a strong commercial contender internationally.  This is only its second flight.  Epsilon’s prime contractor is IHI Aerospace; Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which builds the much larger H-II rocket, is a supplier, as is NEC.  The payload, ERG, will be operated by JAXA on a highly elliptical orbit that will force it to pass repeatedly through the Van Allen Belts for the purpose of better understanding them.  It will join two NASA spacecraft already on that mission, permitting three-way observation.

Then there were two launches yesterday.  First, from Kourou Space Centre in French Guiana, an Ariane V heavy lift rocket lifted two commsats to geosynchronous transfer orbit: Star One D1, to provide television and telecommunications services to South America for Embratel Star One of Brazil, and JCSAT 15, to provide television services for SKY Perfect JSAT Corp of Japan.


And then overnight, a scientific Earth observation satellite designed to monitor CO2 levels, TanSat, launched into polar orbit aboard a Long March 2D rocket from Jiuquan in northern China.  The spacecraft will be capable of mapping CO2 concentrations down to four parts per million worldwide, and also carries instruments relating to cloud and aerosol detection.  Don’t be alarmed by all the sparklies you see falling — those are sheets of ice illuminated by the brilliant rocket plume.  Ice formation is extremely common on liquid-propellant rockets, since the oxidizer at minimum is chilled to cryogenic temperatures.

All of these launches were completely successful.  There are three more launches planned for 2016, and hopefully they will go just as well: another Long March 2D, a Long March 3B, and a Proton.

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Akatsuki — the little probe that . . . could?

Akatsuki has a long and interesting history.  Japan’s first probe to the planet Venus, the spacecraft was launched in in 2010 with an aim of inserting into Venus orbit six months later to commence a two-year mission studying the unique weather of our planet’s twin.  (Fraternal twin, definitely.  Venus is an unbelievably hostile environment.)


So what happened?  Five years ago, Akatsuki encountered Venus and fired its main engine for orbital capture, but something went badly wrong.  The spacecraft began spinning, and the computer automatically shut down the engine to prevent catastrophe.  Analysis of the flight data suggests that the ceramic nozzle of the hypergolic main engine had shattered, causing the engine plume to billow out in unpredictable directions, resulting in the spin.  The computer righted the spacecraft, but by then it was too late; Venus was now far behind.

But Japanese flight controllers are astonishingly stubborn, and they did not give up.  They knew that the spacecraft would get another chance, if only they could coax it to last way past its original design lifespan.  For five years later, it would be in position to take a second crack at Venus orbit insertion.

That moment came yesterday.  Using a carefully choreographed routine that uses its reaction control motors in ways never intended, the spacecraft was programmed to ease into Venus orbit with a twenty-minute burn.  So far, we know the spacecraft carried out the burn, and is still alive.  It won’t be until sometime tomorrow that we know what orbit it’s in — and crucially, whether it’s now orbiting the Sun or Venus.  But the early indications are very good!  And JAXA has posted some truly adorable graphics to celebrate.  This one is my favorite, showing Akatsuki and Venus cuddling up together.  😉


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H-IIA enters the commercial launch business

Japan’s H-IIA rocket, built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, primarily serves the Japanese government, lofting spy satellites, weather satellites, and scientific spacecraft, including SELENE/Kaguya, Ikaros, and the Hayabusa 2 asteroid sample return mission, but as of today it is now also a commercial competitor, having launched Telstar 12 Vantage for Telesat of Ottawa, Canada.

The rocket’s core stage and upper stage both use liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen; note the sparkly pyrotechnics firing under the engines before ignition, just like the Space Shuttle, to burn off excess hydrogen released during the startup process.  The four strap-on boosters (H-IIA flies with 2-4, depending on mission requirements) are solid propellant motors manufactured in Japan.  (Some H-IIAs fly with Castor 4 motors built by ATK, but not this one.  Like the motor count, it depends on mission requirements.)

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Doctor Who meets Super Sentai?

This is a thing of beauty, and magnificently treated to look as if it were put on film years ago (it’s not, it’s actually a new creation apparently).  The Super Sentai series is a very popular superhero show in Japan, dating back to the 1970s, which you’ll most likely know as the source material for “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers”.  So what would “Doctor Who” look like through this lens?  Apparently, something like this:

The Dalek big bad is great, but what really sells it for me is the, well, I can only call them Cyber-Putties.  😉

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Hayabusa 2 is on its way!

Japan’s second sample return mission is on its way to an Apollo-class asteroid, an unnamed asteroid designated  (162173) 1999 JU3.  It uses ion thrusters for propulsion and carries four tiny landers equipped to scoop up samples for return to Earth, in addition to an impactor that is intended to excavate a deeper sampling location for the spacecraft.  Three of the four landers are Japanese, and the fourth is MASCOT, built by the same ESA team that built Philae, putting them in the lovely position of celebrating the landing of one space craft less than a month before celebrating the launch of another.

Enjoy the launch!  This is a H-2A rocket, built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and launched from Tanegashima Space Center.

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