HELSINKI — Japan launched a new optical reconnaissance satellite late Thursday to boost the country’s remote sensing capabilities.

A Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-2A rocket in a figuration with a pair of SRB-A3 solid boosters lifted off from Tanegashima Space Center in southwestern Japan at 11:44 p.m. Eastern (0444 UTC Jan. 12). MHI confirmed separation of the satellite from the launch vehicle half an hour later.

Aboard was the IGS-Optical 8 (Information Gathering Satellite) optical reconnaissance satellite. The satellite is expected to enter a roughly circular 500-kilometer altitude Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). 

IGS-Optical 8 is reported to be both for tracking North Korean military activities and for civilian purposes including monitoring natural disasters.

Japan’s Cabinet Satellite Information Center operate IGS satellites. The satellite series service Japan’s national defense and civil remote sensing needs. 

The launch was Japan’s first of 2024 and the 48th overall of the H-2A. Just two more launches of the rocket remain before its retirement. The first launch took place in August 2021. It suffered a launch failure in November 2003, resulting in the loss of an IGS satellite.

The previous H-2A mission launched the XRISM X-ray observatory and SLIM lunar lander. JAXA and NASA are currently troubleshooting XRISM. SLIM will begin its moon landing attempt at 10:00 a.m. Eastern (1500 UTC) Jan. 19.

The final launches of the IGS-Radar 8 and Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite-2 (GOSAT-2) are scheduled to fly separately on the final two H-2A rockets later this year.

H3 flight 2 next month

JAXA and MHI are currently preparing for the second launch of the new-generation, expendable H3 launch vehicle. The H3 is the planned successor to the H-2 series.

The first failed in March 2023 with the loss of the Advanced Land Observing Satellite-3 (ALOS-3). That launch saw the second stage fail to ignite, triggering the launch vehicle’s flight termination system.

The second launch, from Tanegashima, will carry a dummy payload. Liftoff is scheduled for 7:22 p.m. Eastern Jan. 14 (0022 UTC Jan. 15). The launch period for H3 Test Flight No. 2 extends through the end of March. 

The failure of the first H3 launch has led JAXA to delay the launch of its Martian Moons eXploration mission (MMX). The mission aims to collect samples from the Martian moon Phobos and return them to Earth. 

MMX was due to launch on an H3 in September this year. It will instead launch during the following Mars launch window, some 26 months later, in 2026, once the H3 has proved its reliability. A 2026 launch would see the samples collected from Phobos reach Earth in 2031.

JAXA is working on plans for a new, large and reusable launch vehicle as the core of its future space transportation plans. The agency is considering liquid methane as the fuel for the rocket.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. Andrew has previously lived in China and reported from major space conferences there. Based in Helsinki, Finland, he has written for National Geographic, New Scientist, Smithsonian Magazine, Sky...