India Opens New Launch Pad, Japanese Astronaut Takes a Discovery Ride

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While China’s second human spaceflight in as many years was the biggest headline grabber in Asian space in 2005, India and Japan also achieved some notable milestones during the year.

The highlight of India’s year in space was the May 5 launch of the Cartosat-1 mapping satellite aboard the nation’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). Cartosat-1 takes black-and-white pictures sharp enough to discern ground objects 2.5 meters across, making it India’s highest-resolution imaging satellite launched to date.

At 1,560 kilograms, Cartosat-1 also is the heaviest payload launched to date aboard the PSLV. That launch, which also lofted the Hamsat satellite for amateur radio operators, was the first from India’s new launch pad at the Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota. The new pad is designed to accommodate existing and planned Indian launch vehicles.

Also in 2005 the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) broke ground in Bangalore on a deep space tracking station in preparation for its planned Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter, slated for launch in 2007. The heart of the facility will be a dish antenna measuring 34 meters across.

Among the key Indian events to look for in 2006 is the first-quarter launch of Cartosat-2, which will be capable of taking pictures with 1-meter resolution, along with an orbit-and-recovery experiment aboard a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, said S. Krishnamurthi, a spokesman for ISRO. ISRO also expects to launch Israel’s Tauvex space telescope, the GSat-5 C-band communications satellite and the Oceansat-2 environmental satellite during the year, he said.

For Japan, a major highlight of 2005 came in February with the successful return to flight of the H-2A launch vehicle, whose failure in November 2003 destroyed a pair of high-priority surveillance satellites. The payload in the February flight was the MTSat-1R weather and air-traffic management satellite, which has since had some technical problems.

Another high point of the year for Japan was the flight of Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi during the summer aboard NASA’s Space Shuttle Discovery. It was the first space shuttle mission since the February 2003 Columbia accident, and Noguchi’s three spacewalks garnered heavy media coverage in Japan.

In November, Japan’s space program was in the headlines again when the nation’s Hayabusa asteroid probe made a successful touchdown on the asteroid Itokawa to collect samples to bring back to Earth. However, the probe’s has since experienced technical difficulties that may have hampered its sample collection and cast doubt on its ability to return to Earth. As of Dec. 14, Japanese space authorities were still hopeful of re-establishing contact with Hayabusa but said its return would be delayed by three years, to 2010.

Meanwhile, the Japanese space agency, JAXA, is making preparations for H-2A launches in January and February from the Tanegashima Space Center. The first of those missions, tentatively scheduled for Jan. 19, will loft JAXA’s Advanced Land Observation Satellite, a large environmental monitoring craft featuring both radar and optical instruments. The second mission, carrying the MTSat-2 spacecraft, is scheduled for Feb. 15, JAXA said.

Space News Correspondent K.S. Jayaraman contributed to this story from India.