An electrical glitch has knocked out a satellite in a spy network Japan hoped to use to gather intelligence on North Korea and other trouble spots around the world, a Cabinet official said Tuesday.
The failure comes just a month after Japan launched its fourth and final satellite in the network expected to significantly boost its ability to independently gather intelligence and re-establish itself as a major player in Asia's accelerating space race.
The defective satellite, launched in March 2003, appears to have problems with its electrical system and has been unresponsive since Sunday, said Yasuhiro Itakura of the Cabinet's satellite unit. He said efforts to restart the probe have been unsuccessful.
"The situation is not looking good. The satellite could never come back online," Itakura said. "That would mean the network can capture photographs less frequently."
It could take years to replace the satellite, Itakura added.
Japan launched its spy satellite network after North Korea launched a ballistic missile over Japan's main island in 1998. North Korea's nuclear test in October has further spurred Japan to boost its intelligence gathering capabilities.
But the spy network has been riddled with delays and setbacks - including a spectacular mid-air explosion just over three years ago and problems with the probes' optics.
Some in Japan also complain that the network's photos are inferior to those provided by their U.S. counterparts. An improved version is not due for launch until 2009.
Meanwhile, the government has also struggled to keep with regional rivals in its push into space.
China put its first astronauts in orbit in 2003, establishing itself as the leader in Asia's space race, then followed up in February by blasting a satellite out of orbit with a ground-based missile. India is accelerating its rocket development program and has announced plans to shoot for the moon.
Japan has yet to send astronauts into space on its own, though Japanese have joined in U.S. missions.