January 18, 2018 11:37 am JST

Japan's Epsilon-3 rocket puts satellite in orbit

Space agency foresees greater demand for lower-cost satellite launches

KAGOSHIMA, Japan (Kyodo) -- An Epsilon solid fuel rocket successfully placed a small earth observation satellite into orbit Thursday morning, Japan's space agency said.

The rocket carrying the ASNARO-2, a small radar satellite developed by NEC Corp., lifted off from the Uchinoura Space Center in southwestern Japan's Kagoshima Prefecture at 6:06 a.m. and put the satellite into orbit around 7 a.m., the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said.

The Epsilon-3, a 26-meter-long, three-stage rocket, was the third of its type to be successfully launched, following flights in 2013 and 2016, further proving the viability of the technology. On Thursday, it carried a private satellite for the first time, with the previous two rockets transporting JAXA satellites.

The Epsilon's design and smaller size allows reduced operating costs and more frequent launches than the mainstay H-2A and H-2B rockets which burn liquid propellants.

JAXA said it foresees demand increasing for launches of small satellites, and hopes the successful flight of Epsilon-3 will help boost orders.

"We aim to strengthen our competitiveness in launching small satellites," JAXA President Naoki Okumura told a press conference.

The Epsilon rocket is equipped with artificial intelligence technology that reduces labor and launch costs. It can be controlled from the ground by just two computers.

Compared with its predecessor, the M5 rocket, which was retired in 2006, the Epsilon-3 cut launch costs by one-third to some 5 billion yen ($45 million). JAXA aims to further reduce the costs to 3 billion yen.

The ASNARO-2 satellite, developed by NEC with support from the industry ministry, is able to identify objects as small as 1 meter wide on the ground and capture images at night and when there is cloud cover.

NEC will provide pictures of areas affected by disasters or deforestation to research institutes and local governments.

The rocket launch was initially planned for November but was postponed due to a technical problem. It was rescheduled for Wednesday but bad weather forced the launch to be put off for an extra day.

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