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When Harunori Nagata launched a 1.6-meter rocket for the third time in March, it was still an experiment.

But when the associate professor at Hokkaido University sets one off, it will likely be the first such commercial launch in Japan.

In October, Hokkaido Aerospace Science and Technology Incubation Center, a nonprofit organization set up in 2002 by local researchers, started offering to launch rockets designed by Nagata — at a cost of 3.1 million yen, including 1 million yen for the launch and 2.1 million yen for the vehicle, excluding the rocket engine, which is not for sale because its technology is being kept secret.

The 10.5-kg rocket can reach an altitude of 1 km within three seconds of liftoff.

“I began developing the hybrid rocket (in 1998) with no intention of making it a business,” said Nagata, 39, who worked at Nissan Motor Co.’s aerospace division before assuming the university post in 1996.

“But we’ve been considering starting a business launching larger rockets, and believe the current rocket can serve as a prototype and build good public relations for the project.”

Japan’s space projects have long been monopolized by the government and a handful of heavy-industry giants. But recent failures, including the launch of the sixth H-IIA rocket, which failed to reach orbit last November, have clouded the future of the nation’s space industry goals.

In contrast, small firms outside of Tokyo and university researchers like Nagata have in recent years aggressively pursued the space market.

Small firms in Higashi Osaka, Osaka Prefecture, jointly plan to place a 50 × 50 × 50 cm Maido-I cubic satellite into orbit by the end of March 2006.

In Ibaraki Prefecture, firms are conducting feasibility studies for launching a small rocket in 2008 that will release a satellite into orbit.

Nagata and HASTIC took a step ahead of their rivals.

The Cascaded Multistage Impinging-jet (CAMUI)-type rocket, which can accommodate a video camera, can be used for research, including meteorological observations, according to HASTIC.

While small rockets use solid fuel, especially gunpowder, the CAMUI runs on liquid oxygen and acrylic, which makes it more cost-competitive, Nagata said.

“One strength (of the hybrid rocket) is that it is safer and less costly than rockets using explosive fuels,” he said, noting a CAMUI launch is at least 20 percent less expensive.

By law, explosives must be handled by experts and stored in special facilities. These conditions do not apply to the CAMUI. In addition, the CAMUI can be reused 20 times, Nagata said.

After HASTIC announced the start of business in early October, politicians raised concerns about the threat of terrorism.

Nagata dismissed these concerns, saying it would be extremely difficult for nonexperts to process the solid and liquid fuels, fill the rocket with liquid oxygen and build a launchpad for the CAMUI.

Nevertheless, HASTIC is considering strict checks into customers and their reasons for seeking a launch, said Kenichi Ito, executive director of HASTIC.

The NPO said it has received several inquiries about the hybrid rocket from university researchers and rocket aficionados.

Nagata next plans to build a 2.5-meter-long CAMUI hybrid rocket that can reach the stratosphere to an altitude of 60 km by the end of March 2006. He then hopes to build a 4.5-meter-long CAMUI that can reach the zero-gravity zone, as high as 110 km, and stay there for three minutes.

“The larger ones could draw many customers, as we would be able to offer lower prices” than conventional rockets, Nagata said.

By using larger rockets, for example, researchers could study the destruction of the ozone layer in the stratosphere and pharmaceutical companies could conduct zero-gravity experiments to develop new drugs for dealing with aging, he said.

Nagata hopes the CAMUI will help boost Hokkaido’s space-related industries.

Local university researchers are trying to nurture the aerospace industry in cooperation with local companies. A researcher at Hokkaido Institute of Technology also plans to place a small satellite in orbit in fiscal 2007.

“You don’t need a large capital investment to enter the (hybrid) rocket business, and no one else has this technology,” Nagata said.

“I believe (developing the hybrid rocket) will contribute to the nation’s space program because it can help nurture researchers for next-generation (rocket) systems and accumulate basic technology.”

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