TOKYO -- Japan successfully fired the H-IIA rocket for the 27th consecutive time from the Tanegashima Space Center on Friday, but a long wait time between launches and high costs still stand in the way of full-fledged commercialization.
"Short intervals between launches help build confidence," said Naoki Okumura, president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA. The last H-IIA launch was on Jan. 24. The agency and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries cut the interval by a day from their past record to just 52 days by using a small crane for the previously manual cleanup process, as well as other operational changes.
Mitsubishi Heavy and JAXA were committed to slashing the gap this time around. After 27 consecutive successes, H-IIA's success rate has now reached about 97%. The international standard for confidence is 95%. But the low frequency of launches has held the project back, since it means clients must wait a long time. The agency is now working hard to cut downtime and attract more overseas clients before introducing the H3 launch vehicle in fiscal 2020.
At the current pace of just four launches a year, most H-IIAs end up being used by public Japanese institutions. The rocket fired on Friday, like others, was loaded with a government satellite. Only four so far have served foreign private-sector clients, the first of which carried a Canadian satellite two years ago. France-based Arianespace, on the other hand, can put 10 or more satellites into orbit each year.
Japan has a chance to catch up with the six launches a year planned for the H3. Mitsubishi Heavy and JAXA hope to win more orders by creating a framework that allows for more frequent launches. It is already developing the necessary know-how.
They are also working to cut costs, which are said to be higher than those of their competitors. H-IIAs apparently cost 30% more than rockets by U.S.-based SpaceX, which has been an obstacle for finding new clients. Mitsubishi Heavy, which produces H-IIAs with technical assistance from JAXA, is expanding its plant in Aichi Prefecture to prepare for the mass production of H3s. It hopes to halve costs to about 5 billion yen ($44.3 million) by installing new lines and other measures.
Despite its setbacks in developing large cruise ships and the Mitsubishi Regional Jet, Mitsubishi Heavy has high hopes for space. "It only accounts for about 1% of total sales, but it has a big impact when you consider the possibilities," a source familiar with the matter said.
Meanwhile, European and U.S. rivals are raising the stakes. SpaceX is looking to commercialize reusable rockets. Arianespace hopes to halve launch costs for its new model expected around 2020 by contracting out its development.
Japan holds just a 1% share in the global space business. While this indicates a great potential, it also means rivals are also moving forward.