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Japan launches meteor spawning mini-satellite and 6 other spacecraft into orbit

Japan has launched seven spacecraft into Earth orbit today (Jan. 17), including a small satellite designed to create dazzling artificial meteor showers.

The cargo arrived in space aboard an Epsilon rocket, which took off from the Uchinoura Space Center on the Japanese island of Kyushu at 7:50 p.m. EST (0050 GMT and 09:50 local time, Japan time on January 18). If all goes according to plan, the seven spacecrafts will be installed in an orbit about 500 kilometers above our planet.

The launch was the first of Japan's Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA) Innovative Satellite Technology Demonstration Program, which seeks to nurture and prove the new advanced space technology. [Satellite Quiz: How Well Do You Know What’s Orbiting Earth?]

"Through these demonstration experiments, we intend to strengthen the international competitiveness of Japanese satellite technology, promote the use of space and generate innovation," Jaxa officials wrote in the mission's press kit.

A Japanese Epsilon rocket is launched at the Uchinoura Space Center on January 17, 2019, carrying seven satellites in orbit.

A Japanese Epsilon rocket is launched at the Uchinoura Space Center on January 17, 2019, carrying seven satellites in orbit.

Credit: JAXA

The main payload of today's launch was the Rapid Innovative Satellite Demonstration Satellite 1 (RAPIS-1) satellite, whose square body measures about 1 meter in the side. In a first for JAXA, the agency consigned the manufacture and operation of RAPIS-1 to a startup – the Japanese company Axelspace.

RAPIS-1 features a variety of technology demonstrations, including a thin-film blade and solar panel; small propellants using low toxicity propellant; a low cost particle sensor; and "deep learning" software that will assist in attitude control and Earth observation.

The six satellites include ALE-1, which was built by Astro Live Experiences, based in Tokyo. ALE-1 is 24 inches long by 24 inches wide by 31 inches tall (60 by 60 by 80 centimeters) and is packed with 0.4 cm wide (1 cm) particles designed to create a sky show when descend through the Earth's atmosphere.

ALE-1 and some monitoring ships will "investigate the feasibility of man-made meteors and [their] marketing "as well as providing data on the Earth's upper atmosphere, representatives Astro Live Experiences wrote in a description of the project.

These first artificial meteors will not light for another year. ALE-1 will eventually deploy a dragging "membrane", which will help lower the satellite's altitude by about 100 km. Then, in the spring of 2020, he will implant his first pellets – about the Japanese city of Hiroshima, if everything goes according to plan. The resulting meteors should be visible to more than 6 million people in a region about 200 miles wide, Astro Live Experiences representatives said.

The other secondary loads that were launched today are MicroDragon and RISESAT; OrigamiSat-1, which will demonstrate a "multifunctional implantable membrane structure"; Aoba VELOX-IV, which aims to prove the technology of propellers and images for future lunar missions; and NEXUS, a small cube (3.9 by 3.9 by 4.3 inches, or 10 by 10 by 11 cm) that will demonstrate three new types of transmitters for use in amateur satellite communication.

These six spacecraft vary greatly in mass, from 2.9 lbs of NEXUS. (1.3 kg) to 150 lbs. (68 kg) for ALE-1.

Tonight's launch was the fourth of an Epsilon rocket, which debuted in 2013. The 24-meter (79-foot) booster can carry up to 1,543 lbs. (700 kg) to a circular orbit 310 miles high.

No previous Epsilon releases had already released more than one satellite at a time, Jaxa officials said.

Mike Wall's book on the search for alien life "Out there"(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; Karl Tate) is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow Us @Spacedotcom or Facebook. Originally published in

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