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Japan Defense Ministry to gather intelligence using private mini-satellites

This screenshot of the Planet Labs Inc. website shows the company's Dove miniature satellites.

TOKYO -- The Defense Ministry will begin collecting images from privately-operated fleets of miniature Earth observation satellites in June to diversify its satellite-based intelligence gathering.

Though they take inferior quality images compared to government intelligence or large commercial satellites, operators can task over 100 miniature satellites simultaneously, allowing image collection over a much broader area and at low cost. The Defense Ministry will use the images in conjunction with those from full-size satellites to monitor North Korean nuclear and missile sites, among other intelligence-gathering jobs.

The ministry will collect images from "Dove" miniature satellites operated by U.S. firm Planet Labs Inc., after doing a test run in fiscal 2017 to confirm the satellite fleet's efficacy. A contract was signed with Planet's Japan office on May 17 worth some 118 million yen (about $1.06 million), under which the ministry's Defense Intelligence Headquarters -- responsible for collecting and analyzing foreign military intelligence -- will be able to access and download images from the company's database starting in June.

Previously, the ministry has had to depend on images from satellites operated by the Cabinet Satellite Intelligence Center or U.S. satellite imagery giant DigitalGlobe's WorldView-4 craft. However, these satellites range in size from small to large and all weigh over 500 kilograms each. While they are capable of taking images so finely detailed one can track the movement of cars or people, there are only a few of them in orbit, making them expensive to use and limiting their breadth of coverage.

Planet's Dove satellites, on the other hand, are about 10 centimeters tall, 10 centimeters wide and 30 centimeters long, and weigh only around 5 kilograms each. Moreover, there are 120 to 150 of them operational at any given time, and they can cover even the planet's most remote islands more than once a day.

(Japanese original by Shinichi Akiyama, Political News Bureau)

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