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Japan's new rocket could double launch schedule

Mitsubishi Heavy eyes faster turnaround to develop commercial satellite business

JAXA's H-IIA rocket has completed 30 successful launches in a row.   © JAXA/Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan will be able to roughly double the pace of its satellite launches when the country's next-generation rocket takes flight in fiscal 2020, opening the door for the country to make a bigger push into the international commercial satellite launch business. 

The successful placement in orbit on Tuesday of a fourth quasi-zenith satellite aimed at improving the accuracy of the GPS system highlights the need for a new launch vehicle. The H-IIA rocket used by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, boasts a remarkable 97% success rate. The latest liftoff of the H-IIA marks 30 successful launches in a row over 14 years.

But quality has come at the expense of quantity. Key rocket parts must be inspected thoroughly before each launch. This process takes around 30 days for the H-IIA, plus additional time for work such as wiring. The span between launches in January and March of this year was 52 days, itself an improvement over previous figures. Add to this Japan's heavy dependence on just one launch site -- Tanegashima, off the southern island of Kyushu -- and the challenge of holding more frequent launches becomes apparent.

Japan's space sector is also small, consisting largely of JAXA, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and engineering contractor IHI.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration reports that European nations launched 11 rockets during 2016, many of them made by commercial launch services provider Arianespace. These countries also are working to add new liftoff sites near the equator. The U.S., home to a thriving commercial space sector including SpaceX, sent up 22 rockets last year, burying Japan's total of four for the calendar year.

New era

Narrowing that gap will require making inspections at Tanegashima more efficient. Mitsubishi Heavy, which handles launch services operations for the H-IIA rockets, hopes "to hold two launches over a span of 30 days," said Koki Nimura, senior engineer for integrated defense and space systems -- a timetable that would enable more than 10 launches annually.

The next-generation H3 rocket, which JAXA and Mitsubishi Heavy hope to debut in fiscal 2020, will go far toward hitting this target. Inspection protocols for that launch vehicle are being designed from scratch, with an eye toward drastically lowering time requirements.

The space agency has focused on government information and weather satellites during the H-IIA era. But the H3 is being designed expressly to compete with foreign offerings and bring more commercial launches to Japan. The rocket incorporates 800,000 parts, down from the H-IIA's 1 million, and will cost around 5 billion yen ($44.3 million) to launch -- half the price of its predecessor.

The time to start roping in customers is now: A lengthy manufacturing process means rockets typically take two to three years to reach the launch pad once an order is placed. Consequently, the H3 and its predecessor will overlap for a period of around three years.

But commercial satellite launches are a low-margin business that requires achieving scale to push down costs and prices, something Russian and Chinese players have mastered. Reaching 5 billion yen per launch is a feat for Japan, yet it is only a starting point in global terms.

The H3 has been under development for four years. JAXA argues the new rocket is necessary to ensure Japan a way to carry payloads into space a decade down the line. It being nearly 20 years since the H-IIA was first introduced, a growing number of the young hands lack experience designing rockets, says Masashi Okada, head of development for the H3.

Developing space technology is a collaborative business: Satellites, rockets and launch services all rely on one another, and each helps the other advance. If the H3 falls flat, the entire business in Japan could come tumbling down to earth.

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