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Building on success of flagship rocket, Japan to take on low-cost rivals

The H-IIA boasts a reliability rate of over 97%

Tuesday's launch added to a string of successful H-IIA rockets that has continued since 2003. (Photo by Masamichi Hoshi)

TOKYO -- Japan successfully fired its 33rd straight H-IIA rocket Tuesday, maintaining a world-class success rate of over 97%, but it aims to halve costs and prep time for its successor launch vehicle to face down fierce competition from the likes of Elon Musk's SpaceX.

The 39th H-IIA vehicle was launched Tuesday afternoon from the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan's Kagoshima Prefecture, putting in orbit a government reconnaissance satellite, Radar 6. The first H-IIA rocket was fired in 2001, and the program, a collaboration of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, has not had a failed launch since 2003.

"Getting satellites in orbit successfully is the only way to boost confidence," Mitsubishi Heavy executive fellow Koki Nimura, the senior chief engineer for space systems, told reporters Tuesday, calling the launch "reassuring."

Though the H-IIA remains one of the world's most reliable rockets, launch service providers the world over are turning up the heat. "Launch costs have roughly halved, and the interval between launches has shrunk to as short as one week, from the previous gap of two months," said executive officer Yuichi Hayasaka of Satellite broadcaster Sky Perfect JSAT.

SpaceX, full name Space Exploration Technologies, has led the cost-cutting charge, making 80% to 90% of parts internally and incorporating off-the-shelf technologies. The U.S. developer's novel rocket reuse program is pushing costs down even further.

Global demand for geostationary satellites is around 20 per year. But there are concerns that that tally will drop as the satellites last longer. Demand for miniature satellites, however, is expected to grow sharply. With new players continuing to enter the industry, launch providers may compete even more fiercely to lower prices.

Mitsubishi Heavy and JAXA aim to launch a prototype of the H3, the H-IIA's successor, in fiscal 2020. The goal is to slash costs to around 5 billion yen ($45.3 million) and the time from order to launch to about one year, using shared parts and components sourced from the private sector. The rocket will also be able to be fitted with different numbers of solid rocket boosters to adjust thrust capacity.

"In both price and reliability, the H3 will put up as good a fight or better" than competitors like SpaceX, said Naohiko Abe, Mitsubishi Heavy's senior vice president in charge of space systems, adding that he hoped to launch two to three satellites per year.

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