TANEGASHIMA, KAGOSHIMA PREF. – Japan placed two satellites into separate orbits with a single rocket on Saturday morning, achieving a feat it hopes will lead to cheaper launches in the future.
The H-IIA rocket took off from Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture at 10:26 a.m., carrying a Shikisai climate research satellite and a low-altitude test satellite named Tsubame. The satellites will orbit at altitudes of 800 km and under 300 km, respectively.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), working in conjunction with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., hopes the success will allow it to orbit multiple satellites using one rocket in the future. Until now, each JAXA satellite had been launched individually.
The H-IIA rocket released the Shikisai first before decelerating and dropping to an altitude of around 480 km to release the Tsubame.
Shikisai will travel on a path that will see it return to the same orbit after a certain period, allowing it to investigate changes in water circulation and the mechanisms involved in climate change over a set period.
Tsubame, driven by an ion engine that uses fuel more efficiently than gas jet propulsion, will maneuver into lower orbits of 300 km or below and be assessed for its ability to stably travel at low altitudes. At such altitudes, atmospheric resistance is about 1,000 times greater than that experienced by most observation satellites, which orbit at around 600 km to 800 km above Earth.
When Tsubame reaches an altitude of 270 km about 15 months later, a test will determine whether it can maintain that altitude using its thrusters, the goal being to have it gradually descend to an altitude of 180 km.
Orbits lower than 300 km remain underdeveloped for satellite use, according to JAXA.
Putting a satellite in a low orbit makes it possible to capture high-resolution images, among other potential functions. JAXA hopes to put such images to use during and after natural disasters.