TOKYO -- Japan will launch Thursday its second satellite for a GPS system designed to bring hyper-accurate location data, moving closer to a technology that offers applications in national security, autonomous driving and other services.
The quazi-zenith Michibiki No. 2 satellite, a joint effort of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, is scheduled to blast off at 9:17 a.m. local time. Launchpad preparations for the Michibiki's launch vehicle, the H-IIA, were underway Tuesday at JAXA's Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture. A further two Michibiki satellites are planned for launch this fiscal year, and one is already in orbit.
The Michibiki satellites send signals to Earth to determine the receiver's location. Their quasi-zenith orbits will keep one of them over Japan at all times, providing a top-down view unobstructed by tall buildings or mountains. Metropolitan or mountainous areas can reduce GPS accuracy by as much as 10 meters, but together with Michibiki satellites and ground-based facilities, the error can be reduced to 6cm. The high accuracy system could be in place as early as next spring.
This precision raises numerous possibilities for new technologies and services. With an eye to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, research is underway on guide robots that can help orient lost foreigners. Other promising fields include unmanned seed-planting agricultural machinery, nimbler autonomous driving and package delivery by drone.
Japan's government is working on a plan to have seven Michibiki satellites in orbit by fiscal 2023, hoping to wean off its reliance on American satellites with its own national location information system.
American GPS satellites originally served military purposes, such as tracking troop deployment. With location information becoming ever more important in national security, and indispensable in everyday life, China, Europe and other regions are moving to create their own satellite-based location-tracking programs.