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Business trends

Japan space venture chases world market with spring rocket launch

Interstellar Technologies partners JAXA to overcome setbacks

Founder Takafumi Horie wants Interstellar Technologies to be Japan's first private company in space.  (Photo by Mitsuru Obe)

TOKYO -- Japanese rocket startup Interstellar Technologies will launch a sounding rocket as early as the spring, which will make it the country's first private company to make it into space as Japan goes after China and the U.S. in the growing space business.

The Hokkaido company founded by Takafumi Horie, a high-profile investor, said on Tuesday that Momo, its 10-meter long, 1-ton sounding rocket, is nearly ready for launch.

The company acknowledged involvement in development by former engineers from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and rocket maker Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. It said it will be working with JAXA to develop engines for future commercial rockets.

Momo is a suborbital rocket that can take a 10 kg payload up 100km. Zero -- 22 meters long with a launch weight of 32 tons -- can lift a 100 kg payload into a low Earth orbit of 500km. The Zero launch is due in 2022 or 2023.

Interstellar wants to keep Zero launch costs down to about $5 million, while Momo is budgeted for around $500,000.

Some 250 microsatellites were launched worldwide in 2018, according to SpaceWorks, a U.S. consultancy. The annual number of launches should at least double in the next five years, and Horie believes that falling launch costs will push the number higher.

Horie, 46, may not have achieved the kind of success Elon Musk has in space technology yet, but as one of the best known entrepreneurs in Japan, he has a huge following and his activity has created a broad interest in space science.

JAXA's support follows Japan's commitment to investing 100 billion yen ($900 million) in space ventures over the next five years with a view to doubling national space business by the early 2030s.

Interstellar was an early starter in the field in 2006, but has not kept up with Chinese and U.S. rivals. After violating securities laws, Horie spent from 2011 to 2013 behind bars. Failed rocket launches in both 2017 and 2018 have forced the company to rethink its go-it-alone strategy.

The company now takes advice from more established players, and follows best practices in rocket production. The company previously only tested the main rocket systems ahead of launches to save costs, but now conducts full-duration captive-firing tests twice -- even though such tests can cost as much as an actual launch.

Interstellar's struggles contrast with the meteoric trajectories of many Chinese startups, which are often government supported. For example, OneSpace was established in Beijing in 2015, and will launch a 19-meter rocket this month to put a small satellite in orbit -- a first for a private Chinese company. Rival i-Space, set up in Beijing in 2016, also has an imminent satellite launch.

Interstellar Technologies' rocket launch failed on June 30. (Photo by Takuya Imai)

American startups are doing even better. Rocket Lab, a small launch company started in 2006, sent up three orbital missions last year and is emerging as a major player in the small rocket market. Earlier this month, SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule became the first commercial spacecraft to reach the International Space Station. The company expects this summer to be the first private company to put astronauts in space.

"It's high time we produced results," Horie told reporters on Tuesday. He said that Interstellar has had informal exchanges with JAXA, and was grateful that a formal support mechanism has been created.

"We realized that it is difficult to develop a large rocket entirely on our own," said Chief Executive Takahiro Inagawa.

Interstellar is likely to be overtaken by Space One, a joint venture by leading Japanese space contractors that is planning a commercial small satellite launch service for 2021.

Interstellar has a small workforce of only 22, and has been building its rockets with fewer than 15 engineers. Under the new partnership, it will send engineers to JAXA's space center in Kakuda to work on development of a low-cost rocket engine. The center was used to develop Japan's main rockets, including the H-IIA and H-III.

Shunsaku Kamimura, head of JAXA's new business section, emphasized the need to master low-cost engine technology.

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