Japan’s aerospace industry is getting ready to enter the commercial satellite-launching business amid moves to transfer the government’s H-IIA rocket technology to the private sector.
One estimate puts the size of the market at 40 trillion yen in 2010 — four times what it is now.
But many point out that Japan has shown up at the party rather late and is trying to make inroads into the business as worldwide demand for commercial satellite launches wanes.
Meanwhile, the midair disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia shortly before landing in early February is expected to delay the International Space Station program among the United States, Russia and European countries.
Japanese companies will also face severe cost-cutting competition with their U.S. and European counterparts amid the worldwide economic downturn.
In December, the National Space Development Agency of Japan successfully launched an H-IIA rocket into orbit for the fourth consecutive time.
“With a series of four successes, we have established technological reliability,” a NASDA official said.
After launching several more H-IIA rockets over the next two years, the agency plans to shift its rocket manufacturing technology to the private sector, led by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd.
Mitsubishi Heavy plans to enter the space business, including satellite production. The company hopes to launch its first satellite into orbit in fiscal 2005 and has already started accepting orders for broadcasting, communications and observation satellites.
Galaxy Express Co., a joint venture established by Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries Co., six other Japanese firms and Lockheed Martin Corp. of the U.S. in March 2001, has developed the GX Rocket, which will be used to put small and midsize satellites into an orbit with an altitude of 200 km.
The company has cut the production cost to between 5 billion yen and 6 billion yen by using Russian-made engines. It plans to launch a test satellite by the end of fiscal 2005.
Meanwhile, 42 leading Japanese firms, including Mitsubishi Electric Corp. and Hitachi Ltd., established Advanced Space Business Corp. in November.
The Tokyo-based company is engaged in a large-scale project to promote the Quasi-Zenith Satellite System, backed by the Japan Business Federation.
Under the project, three satellites will be placed into geosynchronous orbits. They can be used for various purposes, including communications, broadcasting and positioning of transportation.
The company expects the satellites, which will fly over Japan, Southeast Asia and Australia, tracing a figure 8, to be used for communication businesses. The company forecasts total sales of 6 trillion yen for the 12-year life of the satellites.
The road ahead does not warrant any optimism, however.
The number of launches of large satellites is now around 20 — just one-third the total at the height of such launches.
“The market for launches of satellite-carrying rockets is saturated,” said Yoshihide Kanie, a director of Rocket System Corp. “The business will remain severe for some time to come.”
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