updated 12/8/2004 4:04:26 PM ET 2004-12-08T21:04:26

A government panel Wednesday approved plans to send a weather satellite into Earth's orbit by February 2005, in the first scheduled launch for Japan's troubled space program since late last year, an official said.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, has suspended several missions since an H-2A rocket carrying two Japanese spy satellites was destroyed by mission controllers after it veered off course in November 2003.

The H-2A was meant to be a cheaper and more reliable replacement for its predecessor, and a key to Tokyo's hopes for advancing a commercial launch business. But critics say the agency has had to cut corners to stay within budget, compromising quality.

The government's space activities commission endorsed JAXA's plan to launch a multipurpose satellite aboard a redesigned H-2A rocket in January or February, an agency spokesman said on condition of anonymity.

The satellite, which will track weather patterns and relay air traffic communications in the Asia-Pacific region, will replace the Himawari 5, a weather observation craft that was launched in 1995 and no longer works properly, the spokesman said.

Since May 2003, Tokyo has relied on weather images from the U.S. satellite GOES-9, he said.

Japan in 1970 became the fourth country to put a satellite into orbit.

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