Japan’s spy satellites are an open secret


Kyodo News

Tokyo has been operating spy satellites for four years that have not been registered with the United Nations, despite having signed an international treaty that requires it to report them.

The Convention on Registration of Objects launched into Outer Space, adopted in 1974 and proclaimed in 1976, required signatories to identify the artificial satellites and other objects they put in space. Japan signed that treaty in 1983. Treaty violations are not subject to punishment.

“We cannot make detailed information public because of security,” said an official of the Cabinet Satellite Intelligence Center, which owns the satellites. “Besides, there are many European and U.S. military satellites that are unregistered.”

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, and the Foreign Ministry, have jurisdiction over the spy satellites.

“We have no authority to decide on the registration” at the U.N., a science ministry official said.

Japan’s use of space is supposed to be nonmilitary, but the Defense Ministry can use the pictures the satellites take. The official admitted the satellites are similar to other countries’ military satellites.

Since Japan signed the convention, the government has registered nearly 100 satellites, including the Osumi, the nation’s first. Japan has told the U.N. the shapes and altitudes of the satellites’ orbits, and their inclinations from the Earth’s axis.

Japan’s space program is relatively transparent and almost all information on satellites is made public at the time of launch.

However, very little information has been released about the four spy satellites, which were sent into orbit on H-IIA rockets in 2003 or 2007.

Two of the satellites are optical satellites and the other two are radar satellites. The combination of the four makes it possible for Japan to watch all points on Earth once a day.

After North Korea tested a long-range missile that flew over part of Japan in 1998, calls mounted for Japan to have spy satellites. The government shelved the Diet resolution on the peaceful use of space and began studying the use of information-gathering satellites.

After it finished studying a spy-satellite program behind closed doors, the government only disclosed that “the orbit will be at the altitude of 400 km-600 km and the satellites will return to the same place once every four days.”

So far, only the successes and failures of the launches have been announced. Orbit details and photographs from the satellites have never been released.

“Also in the case of European and U.S. reconnaissance satellites, the orbit and pictures are not generally made public to conceal (the satellites’) picture-taking capabilities,” said Toshihiko Hoshino, an inspector at the Cabinet Satellite Intelligence Center.

However, the satellites’ orbits are relatively easy to trace.

Because the satellites return to the same spot every four days and there is only one reconnaissance orbit at an altitude of about 490 km, a satellite watcher found the orbits and put them on the Internet.

“Our center has decided not to register satellites with the United Nations,” Hoshino from the Cabinet’s satellite center said. “Even if it is an open secret, our position is that it remains a secret.”

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