Japan launches satellite to track greenhouse gases

Japan successfully launched the world’s first satellite dedicated to monitoring greenhouse gas emissions Friday, aiming to aid the fight against global warming while boosting its own space industry.

The mission will help scientists measure the density of carbon dioxide and methane from almost the entire surface of the Earth, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

A Japanese-made H-2A rocket carrying the Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite (GOSAT) blasted off from Tanegashima, a small island in southern Japan, after a two-day delay due to bad weather.

The satellite, also called Ibuki, or “breath of fresh air”, will collect data from 56,000 locations around the world, a dramatic increase from the 282 observation points available as of last October, JAXA said.

Japan hopes the mission will provide governments with useful data as they come under pressure to meet their 2008-2012 Kyoto Protocol goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

“Japan is determined to expand its space development,” said Seiko Noda, minister in charge of space development.

“Ibuki is a part of Japan’s unique contribution to the world and I am very optimistic about its activity of providing data on global warming,” she added.

Ibuki is equipped with two sensors. One will track infrared rays from the sun that are reflected from the Earth’s surface or the atmosphere, helping to calculate the density of greenhouse gases.

The other will monitor clouds and aerosols as they often lead to errors in calculation.

The satellite will fly around the earth in about 100 minutes, 660 kilometres (410 miles) above ground. It is set to be in orbit for five years and will release preliminary data nine months after the launch.

The rocket was also carrying seven mini-satellites, including several produced by universities.

Japan hopes the successful launch will boost its space industry’s efforts to win satellite launch orders for its H-2A rocket in the face of tough competition from US and European companies.

Top government spokesman Takeo Kawamura said the successful launch would help the Asian giant expand into commercial activities.

Last week Japan secured its first commercial satellite contract after South Korea’s space agency asked Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to launch the KOMPSAT-3, which will take images of the earth.

“A rocket’s competitiveness does not depend only on costs but also on the success rate of its launches, which is important to build trust,” said MHI’s head of space systems, Takeshi Maemura.

Tokyo suffered a high-profile setback in 2003 when it was forced to destroy a rocket carrying a spy satellite after lift-off because a booster failed to separate.

Japan, like China and India, has been stepping up its space operations and is currently conducting the world’s most extensive mission to the moon in decades. It hopes to send an astronaut there by 2020.

Japan is not the only country looking to step up the monitoring of greenhouse gases from space. The United States is set to launch the Orbiting Carbon Observatory this year to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide.

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