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Biotechnology

Japan's Epsilon rocket shoved aside?

TOKYO -- The Japanese government has a new basic space plan. Covering the next decade, the plan was concluded by the Committee on National Space Policy, a unit of the Cabinet Office.

     The committee, which had been meeting since September, conducted its work under the instruction of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Its plan was approved and officially announced earlier this month by the cabinet's Strategic Headquarters for Space Policy, headed by Abe.

      According to the plan, Japan aims to have seven quasi-zenith satellites in orbit in fiscal 2023 and launch more information-gathering satellites. A quasi-zenith satellite enables highly accurate location detection here on Earth. In addition, Japan and the U.S. will step up cooperation in monitoring space debris and other objects that pose a hazard to working satellites, the plan says.

     The plan covers more security-related topics than its predecessors, although many of the topics apparently were not discussed in depth. According to Shinichi Nakasuga, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the University of Tokyo, the committee was eager to show how the Japanese government would proceed with Space Situational Awareness and Maritime Domain Awareness projects when it first began its work.

     However, the final plan only mentions that Japan aims to establish an operational SSA framework "by the end of the first half of the Heisei 30s." Those words reflect the Japanese calendar and refer to a five-year period beginning with 2018.

     As for MDA, it says that knowledge and other data are slated to be gathered by the end of fiscal 2016. This information will be reflected in future plans. A source familiar with the work said he regrets that the committee did not have sufficient time to reach a conclusion through talks with the Ministry of Defense.

     SSA refers to knowledge of the environment of space, including the location and function of space debris and unidentified satellites. MDA is the effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact security, safety, the economy or the environment.

     To promote Japan's aerospace industry, the government has decided to include an Epsilon launch in the fiscal 2015 budget. The rocket will carry a satellite incorporating new technologies into space. The budget was approved by the cabinet on Wednesday. This is an indication that Japan's space agency, known as JAXA, will be able to launch at least one rocket per year during the next decade.

Japan's new basic plan on space policy reveals possible problems in the Epsilon program.

     The plan, however, failed to describe a clear picture of the Epsilon's future. The rocket might even have some design and cost problems.     

     Since the launch of the Epsilon-1, a solid-fuel rocket designed to carry scientific satellites, in 2013, JAXA has been unable to launch another rocket. The Epsilon-2 was expected to take off with science satellite Geospace ERG in fiscal 2015, but the liftoff has been postponed to fiscal 2016 due to delays in the development of the satellite. JAXA is also waiting for the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to get its Asnaro-2 satellite ready for launch.

     The Epsilon was originally developed to cut down on overall costs. But now Japan is working on a new rocket, the H-III, successor to the H-IIA. The H-III's design is expected to differ from the H-IIA in order to halve launch costs.

     One big configuration difference between the two could lead to cheap, boosterless launches of the H-III.

     The bottom line is that the cost of launching the Epsilon, which currently uses the H-IIA's solid strap-on booster, could grow. Even its production may be in doubt.

     Hiroshi Yamakawa, a professor of space engineering at Kyoto University and a member of the space policy committee, had been urging the panel to present its vision of the Epsilon through 2020 or so in the course of its work.

     However, the committee could not reach a conclusion on the matter, and the plan only says the government will start discussing Epsilon rockets during fiscal 2015. An official at the Cabinet Office's Office of National Space Policy said the coordination among Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the maker of the H-III; IHI Aerospace, the maker of the solid strap-on booster; and JAXA will be important.

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