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Joint venture launches 4 Japanese companies into minirocket market

Rising demand for small satellites seen as big chance for new company

TOKYO -- Four Japanese companies have formed a joint venture to tap into the growing global demand for small rockets used to send satellites into space.

Canon Electronics, IHI Aerospace, Shimizu and Development Bank of Japan -- all major contributors to Japan's space program -- launched New Generation Small Rocket Development Planning on Wednesday.

The new company plans to develop next-generation, solid-fuel minirockets capable of carrying 100kg payloads.

Currently, U.S. start-ups have taken the lead in private-sector rocket development. As more businesses seek low-cost ways to send small satellites into space, however, there appears to be room for competition in the niche market.

The new company is led by President Shinichiro Ota, a former industry ministry bureaucrat and once the head of the Japan Patent Office. NGSRDP will initially be based at Canon Electronics' headquarters, studying technologies and costs with the hope of starting commercial operations as early as this year.

The joint venture has set a price point of 1 billion yen ($9.1 million) or less per launch -- an amount seen as competitive against overseas rivals. At present, plans call for a rocket smaller than the Epsilon rocket currently under development by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, but larger than JAXA's SS-520 minirocket.

The four companies had been discussing formation of a small rocket company for about three years. President Ota has said that the "time is ripe" for the joint venture.

IHI Aerospace has played a key role in the development of Epsilon, while Canon Electronics has been involved in the SS-520 project.

JAXA aims to launch a SS-520 by the end of this year, during which Canon will demonstrate the viability of its rocket control system. If successful, Canon aims to use the system in NGSRDP's rocket.

Japan's Space Activities Act will go into effect in the fall of 2018. The law establishes licensing procedures for companies entering the rocket business and augments liability insurance covering accidents. Ota said the new law will make it easier for companies to enter the rocket field.

The market for small rockets is expected to grow fast. A U.S. research company projects 460 ultra-small satellites weighing 1kg to 50kg will be launched in 2023, a figure 360% higher than for 2016.

The sharp increase will be driven private-sector services that require high-resolution satellite image data.

Interstellar Technologies -- a Japanese rocket venture established by entrepreneur Takafumi Horie -- recently failed in the launch of its Momo rocket, but vows to carry on with its space program. Based in Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, the company hopes to launch a rocket capable of carrying ultra-small satellites in 2020.

NGSRDP has yet to set a target date for its first launch, as it requires licensing stipulated by the Space Activities Act.

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