The H-2A rocket, whose launch had been delayed several times since September due to technical problems and bad weather, lifted off from Tanegashima Space Centre in southern Japan at 0133 GMT and split 16 minutes later on Tuesday.

Keiji Tachikawa, president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), said: "We were able to launch the H-2A rocket on time and release the satellite as we planned. We are very happy about the success."

The domestically produced rocket carries one of the largest land-observation satellites, which can capture images night and day from regions hit by natural disasters.

The satellite can also be used to draft maps and survey natural resources, with the information to be shared with other Asian nations, the space agency said.

Japan spent $470 million over a decade to develop the four-tonne satellite.

Japan in February 2005 successfully launched a seventh H-2A rocket with a satellite to forecast weather. That was its first launch since a rocket carrying a spy satellite to monitor North Korea failed in November 2003.

Japan plans to launch another H-2A rocket in about a month, but officials suggested it would be later than the original launch schedule of 15 February.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, a heavyweight in Japanese industry, was the main builder of the H-2A rocket as part of a government privatisation drive.