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Rocket launch sites planned in Japan, led by private sector

Canon, IHI units' joint venture scoping out venues for sending up satellites

In Japan, rockets have generally been launched from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Tanegashima Space Center, pictured above, or from its Uchinoura Space Center. Both facilities are in Kagoshima Prefecture in the south. (Photo courtesy of JAXA)

TOKYO -- Japan's first private-sector effort to build rocket-launching facilities is underway as new aerospace legislation paves the way for meeting growth in demand for small observation satellites.

Canon Electronics, a Canon unit, has joined IHI subsidiary IHI Aerospace, construction company Shimizu and the state-owned Development Bank of Japan to establish joint venture New Generation Small Rocket Development Planning. The new company had begun scouting potential sites nationwide by Tuesday, aiming to shorten the list in time to embark on operations in fiscal 2018 at the earliest, following government checks.

The government has led Japanese space development. Launches have generally been at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Tanegashima or Uchinoura space centers in Kagoshima Prefecture in the south.

With the new effort, candidates would need to meet such conditions as having open shore or outlying islands to the south, and no people or buildings within 1km of the launch point. Some see construction costs reaching tens of billions of yen, or hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on scale. Options include jointly owning sites with local municipalities, as well as setting up public-private ventures.

Municipalities also know that hosting sites could grease their economic wheels, with the heightened presence of related businesses putting more taxes into local coffers and bringing more maintenance facilities to the area.

The private-sector partners aim to offer launch services using their own rockets for Earth-imaging satellites weighing up to 100kg. They will keep costs to 1 billion yen ($9.15 million) or lower per launch and expect demand from companies and universities that use satellite imagery. Some see demand for miniature satellites more than quadrupling from current levels to 460 units in 2023.

A private-sector launch site could operate on the client's schedule, unhindered by government satellite launch plans. Such facilities would demand heavy investment in exchange for self-sufficiency.

New aerospace business legislation that takes partial effect this autumn requires potential civilian launch sites to be checked for safety and receive government approval. Private-sector launch sites are uncommon in the world at large.


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