Japan puts space program back on track

First, a technical glitch forced the launch date to be set back. Then a thunderstorm came in and hit this remote island in southern Japan with buckets of rain and howling winds. Fighting to get back on schedule after a fiery failure two years ago and running well behind China is Asia's budding space race, Japan's space agency is praying for sunshine and a little bit of luck.

"Weather is our main problem right now, but you have to always keep the other possible problems in mind," Tatsuo Oshima, a spokesman for Japan's space agency, known as JAXA, said Thursday as the rocket remained locked up safe in its hangar. Japan's latest H-2A rocket the black, orange and white launch vehicle that is the centerpiece of this country's space program is intended to put the four-ton Advanced Land Observation Satellite into orbit.

The satellite, which has three remote sensing instruments, will provide topographic data for use in the production of more detailed maps. But getting this launch out of the way has a deeper significance to Tokyo because it will clear the pad on this tiny, lush island for a much more high-profile mission the launching of two spy satellites by March 2007 to monitor North Korea and other trouble spots.

That program, approved after North Korea launched a missile over Japan's main island in 1998, began with the liftoff of two spy satellites in March 2003. Tokyo put aside US$2 billion for the project, prompting protests from North Korea that Tokyo was triggering a regional arms race.

But an attempt to send two more up in November that year failed because of a defect in the rocket's booster system. Tokyo had planned to put two additional satellites in orbit during fiscal 2005, but had to postpone that after finding defects in the satellites.

Undaunted, the Japanese government is setting aside about 61 billion yen (US$525 million; euro434 million) for the launch and operation of spy satellites for fiscal 2006, according to the Kyodo news service. Japan is also developing a next-generation spy satellite with a higher image-resolution capacity than the existing one, which is worse than many U.S. commercial satellites. Tokyo is reportedly shooting for a 2009 launch date.

In the meantime, however, China has eclipsed Japan as Asia's most successful space-faring nation. China has put astronauts in space twice since 2003, only the third country to send a human into orbit on its own after Russia and the United States. Beijing has said it will send three more astronauts into space as early as 2007.

Following Beijing's success, Japan made an abrupt policy turnabout, saying that it was reconsidering its focus on unmanned missions and announcing plans to send its first astronauts into space and set up a base on the moon by 2025.

Japan's space agency announced last month it will delay until 2010 the return of a star-crossed probe sent to collect samples from an asteroid because a thruster problem put the vehicle into an unexpected spin, reports the AP. N.U.

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