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Japan launches a pair of top secret spy satellites, North Korea may be target

To observe North Korean military activity Japan launched two satellites on Sunday. The first of three launches planned for 2013, these information-gathering satellites will capture crisp images for the government’s intelligence and defense agencies. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, which oversaw the launch, says that the radar-equipped satellite will be used for information gathering.

Called Information Gathering Satellites by the Japanese government, the satellites were carried aboard an H-2A rocket from the Tanegashima Space Center. The H-2A rocket, 187 feet tall and commercially operated by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, launched at 1:40pm local time into an overcast sky. Powered by two solid rocket boosters and a hydrogen-fueled main engine, the rocket started off southeast before moving due south to make its ascent. With a trail of exhaust fumes billowing behind it, the rocket broke the sound barrier in under a minute’s time, en route to orbit over the Pacific Ocean.

About two minutes after liftoff the solid-fueled boosters of the H-2A rocket jettisoned, as many rockets’ engines do in order to fight gravity’s pull and break the Earth’s atmosphere.

With the heavy fuel boosters off, the H-2A’s cryogenic upper stage ignited next to carry these spy satellites into orbit.

While there was no official government or commercial live broadcast of the launch, amateur videographers captured the spectacle and live streamed it online. The mission was declared a success roughly 20 minutes after lift-off by officials.

While the imaging resolution and capacities of the satellites remain undisclosed, it is known that the satellites can take photos of the Earth regardless of weather conditions or time of day. According to the Kyodo news agency, its speculated that these satellites can capture photos with a resolution as high as 15 inches (40 centimeters) above U.S. commercial imaging satellites.

After North Korea tested a missile over Japanese territory in 1998, Japan created the space-based reconnaissance program.  The first of such image-capturing satellites was launched into orbit in 2003.

The Information Gathering Satellites have not only been used to monitor North Korean space activities:  officials used photos taken from these satellites after the devastating tsunami and the following disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant during March 2011.

The next two launches are scheduled for summer and autumn this year. At the next launch planned for July, a massive H-2B rocket will carry a robotic cargo craft to the International Space Station. Following this will be the first flight of a solid-fuel Epsilon satellite launcher, launched from the southernmost of Japan’s main islands, Kyushu.

Before 2014, one more H-2A rocket will launch, carrying JAXA’s second Advanced Land Observing Satellite. This satellite will focus on gathering climate-related data to be used during responses to natural disasters.