JAXA readies small rocket to break cost, use barriers


The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency figures smaller is better: Striving for cheaper and more frequent launches, JAXA has set its sights on firing its new Epsilon small rocket into space from the Uchinoura Space Center in Kagoshima next August or September.

In its first mission, the Epsilon will carry the small Sprint-A satellite, designed to observe Venus, Mars and Jupiter from Earth’s orbit.

The Epsilon uses Japanese solid-fuel rocket technology that originated with the Pencil Rocket developed in 1955 by the late Hideo Itokawa, a professor at the University of Tokyo.

The solid-fuel technology is expected to help achieve flexible and efficient small satellite launches, JAXA officials said. Japan’s other main rocket, the H-IIA, uses liquid fuel.

The agency was forced to terminate the M-V launch vehicle, which was one of the world’s largest and best-performing rockets, due to huge costs. Each launch cost ¥7.5 billion.

An M-V launched the Hayabusa, which in 2010 became the first probe to return to Earth with samples from an asteroid.

The Epsilon, meanwhile, is able to carry a satellite weighing up to 1.2 tons, or two-thirds the capacity of the M-V. The Epsilon’s cost performance is about 30 percent better than the M-V.

The Epsilon is a three-stage rocket 24.4 meters long and weighing 91 tons. The lowest stage was converted from the SRB-A booster used for the H-IIA, while the middle and upper stages were based on those of the M-V.

The first launch is expected to run about ¥5.3 billion. From the fourth launch, the cost will drop to ¥3.8 billion. In the future, JAXA aims to reduce the price tag to ¥3 billion.

Another key feature of the Epsilon is its “mobile” launch control system. This does not require a large number of staff at a control center. Instead, several technicians with two personal computers can handle the job, according to Epsilon project manager Yasuhiro Morita.

“We aim for a rocket that will make space travel as easy as an air trip,” Morita said.

With the simpler control system, only a week is needed for setting up the Epsilon on a launchpad through finishing the cleanup after the launch, about a sixth of the time for an M-V launch.

This year marks both the 100th birthday of Itokawa, father of Japan’s solid-fuel rocket technology, and the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Uchinoura space center, where the Epsilon will be launched.

The space center in the town of Kimotsuki will be used for a satellite launch for the first time since an M-V took up the Hinode solar observatory satellite in 2006. Local businesses in Kimotsuki have benefited from visits by rocket researchers and engineers, but restrictions on fishing are imposed during launch periods.

The Tanegashima Space Center, also in Kagoshima Prefecture, was initially a candidate for the Epsilon’s launch site, but the Uchinoura center was eventually selected, partly due to the efforts of residents in Kimotsuki.

“The Epsilon will usher in a new era (of space development),” Kimotsuki Mayor Kazuyuki Nagano said. “Although there are concerns the number of technicians staying in Kimotsuki will decrease following the introduction of the mobile control system, the number of launches is expected to increase. I am hoping in my heart for a successful launch.”