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Business trends

Japanese companies fire up small-rocket missions

Businesses hone their technology as approval of commercial launches nears

The SS-520 minirocket failed after liftoff in its first launch attempt in January 2017. (Photo: Courtesy of JAXA)

TOKYO -- A number of Japanese companies have been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to get commercial launches of small rockets off the ground. But they have not given up.

Canon Electronics and Interstellar Technologies both failed in their first attempt to launch a small rocket. Having learned from the missteps, they are set to try again soon. If they succeed before the full enactment in November of a law governing the commercial use of space in Japan, their chances of turning their launch businesses into moneymakers will improve significantly.

Canon Electronics is set to fire off its SS-520 minirocket, possibly as soon as Feb. 3. The rocket, which is a little bigger than a utility pole, was developed by Japan's space agency, JAXA, and has a control system made by Canon Electronics and others. It will take off from JAXA's Uchinoura Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture, in southwestern Japan.

The company's first launch, in January 2017, was a near miss. The rocket successfully lifted off the launch pad, but ground controllers soon lost contact. Fearing that it might fly out of control, JAXA shut down the engine, plunging the rocket into the sea. The satellite and control system that were scheduled to be tested during the flight sank beneath the waves.

JAXA said cables on the vehicle likely short-circuited, causing the launch to go awry. The agency has since come up with five ways to prevent a recurrence. To protect the cables, it coated the metal hole through which the cables run with a protective material and changed the shape of the cover for the cables running outside the rocket. This makes them better able to handle the stain and heat they are exposed to as the rocket gains altitude. The circuits were also rearranged to avoid secondary damage if the cables do short out.

Canon Electronics has set up a company, together with IHI Aerospace, Shimizu and Development Bank of Japan, and is trying to create a commercially viable rocket launch business. The plan is to offer a comprehensive service that encompasses both rocket development and the launch itself from a specially prepared site.

The company aims to develop a rocket that uses solid fuel and can carry a small or ultrasmall satellite weighing about 100kg. It is also working to build its own launch facility in the town of Kushimoto, Wakayama Prefecture, the southernmost point on Japan's main island of Honshu. Canon Electronics is set to conduct a soil assessment and start discussions with local communities. It has already informed the prefecture and the town of its plans.

If the upcoming rocket launch succeeds and Canon Electronics' control system proves commercially viable, the company's efforts to develop and test its own rocket will get a big lift, as it seeks approval for its rocket design and launch facility under the new law.

Interstellar Technologies' first Momo sounding rocket launch ended in failure in July 2017. (Photo: Courtesy of Interstellar Technologies)

Interstellar Technologies, based in Hokkaido, plans to launch its second Momo sounding rocket this spring or later. Sounding rockets are equipped to take measurements in suborbital flight. Like the SS-520, the first Momo launch failed in July 2017. The rocket's communications cut out after the launch, probably as a result of components damaged by the stress of the launch.

Undaunted, Interstellar Technologies unveiled a full-scale model of the second Momo rocket in Tokyo in late January. "Once the second [Momo] successfully takes off, a third and fourth will soon follow," said Takafumi Horie, the company's founder.

The second Momo is about the same size as the SS-520. But unlike the solid-fueled SS-520, Momo uses liquid propellant. It will lift off from a facility in the town of Taiki, Hokkaido, which is backing the venture. With expectations in the local community running high, Interstellar strongly hopes for a successful launch.

One reason the company is chomping at the bit is that the "space activity" law will take full effect in November. The law opens the door for commercial rocket launches. When it comes into force, government will start screening companies seeking approval of their space businesses. Being able to tout a successful launch would significantly strengthen Interstellar's application and its chances of getting the green light.

Another reason is increasing competition from abroad. Late last month, Rocket Lab of the U.S. successfully tested its Electron small rocket. The vehicle took off from a facility in New Zealand and put three small satellites into orbit as scheduled. The company succeeded in its second attempt. Expectations are growing that launch orders and production of the rocket will accelerate.

Companies are trying to enter the market for small rockets, expecting a rise in demand for small satellites. The so-called constellation business, which enables communication and observation anywhere on Earth by surrounding the planet with numerous small satellites, has been gaining momentum.

Because these small satellites have limited capabilities, they are usually deployed in large numbers. According to a U.S. research outfit, demand for small satellites is expected to grow 360% to 460 units in 2023, versus 2016 levels.

The more small satellites are to be placed in orbit, the more rockets will be needed to carry them. Companies betting on small rockets think their technology is better, because they can deliver satellites into orbit as needed, rather than relying on larger, more costly vehicles to put up multiple satellites at once.

For now, Canon Electronics and other Japanese companies are trying to establish small-rocket businesses at home. But as the market grows, they will face more overseas competition. That is when the real shooting will start.

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