March 9, 2017 5:00 pm JST

Japan's space agency hopes to swiftly relaunch its minirocket

Private cooperation and financing cut down on turnaround time

RIMI INOMATA, Nikkei staff writer

JAXA's launch of its SS-520 No.4 minirocket failed in January. (Courtesy of JAXA)

TOKYO -- Japan's space agency announced a plan to relaunch its SS-520 No.4 minirocket, which failed during launch in January. The unusually speedy move is being taken to meet demand from the public and private sectors to increase the use of civilian products in the space industry. 

At a Feb. 17 news conference, Naoki Okumura, president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, said he wants to relaunch the rocket, after probing the cause of the failure and considering the necessary next steps. It was only four days before that JAXA released the outcome of an investigation into the cause of the failure.

The announcement is a very optimistic outlook given that preparations for rocket launches usually take a few years. 

In the case of a launch failure, it is common to secure a budget from the government before planning the next move. However, Okumura remained bullish. "We will see more efforts to produce rockets at lower costs by using civilian technology, and the industry is expecting this, too," he said. 

Okumura's confidence is largely due to the fact that the costs for the next launch -- in the range of 300 million yen to 500 million yen ($2.63 million to $4.39 million) -- will be mainly borne by private companies. The government is also expected to contribute to the budget. 

One of the selling points of the minirocket was the active use of civilian products to cut costs. Engineers from Canon Electronics, a unit of the Japanese imaging devices maker Canon, participated in the manufacturing of control equipment for the first time. Canon Electronics plans to accelerate its space drive, Vice President Takeshi Hashimoto said.

The three-stage rocket is an upgrade of JAXA's two-stage SS-520, which carries instruments for research observations. A bundle of wires was routed in and out of the rocket through simple cutouts on the rocket's second and third stage shells.

Postmortem

Investigators suspect that there was a loss of power caused by short-circuiting wires. The coating of the joint surface of metallic holes and wires could have come off due to the rocket body vibrating during the launch. 

Although the wire bundle was protected by fiberglass tape, mechanical friction caused the tape and wire insulation coating to abrade, leading to bare metal touching the conductive aluminum structure. This caused a short circuit between the wire and ground that generated a transient current in excess of 40 amps. In an experiment reproducing the incident, it was confirmed that damage occurred to tape that protects the wires. The power supply was also found to be damaged due to extremely high pressure from the current. 

Hiroto Habu, an associate professor at JAXA who is in charge of launches and probed the cause, said he changed the position of the holes and adopted thinner parts to fit the ultrasmall satellite into the minirocket. 

Asked whether a short circuit was not expected in advance, Habu said JAXA has set its own criteria for parts used in rockets and other equipment, and the minirocket was produced in accordance with those regulations. However, the part damaged in the postmortem experiment was not tested in advance because it is located close to the rocket motor. 

At the council of advisers at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, to which JAXA reported the cause of the failed launch, some people voiced concern about the failed technology.

Yoshifumi Inatani, deputy director general of the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, or ISAS, pointed out the institute did not find if the current criteria was acceptable. On the other hand, there was no problem with the consumer products adopted, he said.

In the wake of the failed launch, JAXA has deployed engineers for its mainstay H-IIA rocket to the development team . The government also remains committed to broadening the base for the space industry by encouraging the entry of private companies into the rocket business. 

Japan's rocket program has experienced a succession of failures. JAXA must learn from these mistakes and take swift measures to correct them.

Canon Electronics, Inc.

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