Satellite launch business faces cloudy future

Foreign adversaries can boast bigger payloads or cheaper prices


Japan’s H-IIA rocket appears to have joined the ranks of the world’s major launch vehicles following the Dec. 12 launch of an intelligence-gathering satellite.

With 19 successes and one failure, however, Japan may stand little chance of capturing a substantial slice of the commercial satellite launch market, given the presence of well-entrenched competitors such as Europe and Russia.

The government and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. are hoping that the successful development of the H-IIA will provide a big break for Japan as it advances into the satellite launch market.

However, in addition to Europe and Russia, emerging space powers like China and India also pose tough competition. This makes it likely that any Japanese satellite launch business will continue to depend on orders from the domestic government for some time to come.

Hope for the launch business grew earlier this month when the H-IIA’s successful launch rate reached 95 percent, a level seen as the threshold for world-class reliability, following liftoff from the Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture. It was carrying its 20th satellite unit.

“A rocket may be recognized as fully developed only after reaching its 20th launch,” said Keiji Tachikawa, president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. The H-IIA is the first large domestic rocket to reach that milestone.

The National Space Development Agency, JAXA’s predecessor, developed the H-IIA to replace the H-II, which was abandoned when its sixth and seventh launches failed. The first H-IIA blasted off in 2001.

Starting with its 13th launch, the H-IIA project was taken over by Mitsubishi Heavy, which aims to expand its satellite launch business by winning orders from foreign customers. On its next mission, an H-IIA will carry a South Korean satellite, representing the first launch deal with a foreign country.

The prospect of a large number of satellite launch orders flowing to Japan is dim, however. In recent years, the stagnant global economy has kept annual worldwide demand for commercial launches, mainly communications satellites, at just 20 or so in a market dominated by Europe and Russia.

Europe’s Ariane family of rockets, with a record of more than 200 launches, and Russia’s Proton rocket, deemed as a leader in low pricing, together hold 80 percent of the commercial satellite launch market. In the meantime, the U.S. aerospace industry has lagged behind since it suffered a series of launch failures in the late 1990s.

The Ariane 5, the latest Ariane model, is popular because of its large launch capacity, roughly double the capacity of the H-IIA and enough to put two large satellites into geostationary orbit simultaneously.

“Most satellites are developed on the premise that they will be carried by an Ariane 5,” said an official at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Proton rocket offers the advantage of low cost, some 20 percent below that of the H-IIA. Chinese and Indian rockets also provide a low-cost option.

Satellite sizes have grown over the years, and now it is possible to bundle functions into a single craft that would have previously needed to be shared by two or more satellites. Moreover, the ensuing increase in fuel capacity has extended their operating lives.

Against such a backdrop, the number of satellite launches is unlikely to increase in the future.

The H-IIA rocket is nearly 20 years old, so it “has failed to keep up with the increase in satellite weight in recent years,” said a Mitsubishi Heavy official.

The H-IIA’s capacity is insufficient to put a satellite weighing 4 tons, the most popular size, into a geostationary orbit above the equator upon liftoff from Tanegashima, which is located at latitude 30 degrees north.

That means a satellite launched on an H-IIA needs to maneuver into orbit by firing its own engine, a process that reduces the fuel available for the craft’s operation.

To make the H-IIA more competitive, Mitsubishi Heavy is planning to modify the rocket’s second stage. The company has set its sights on developing countries as customers.

“We want to win package deals covering the production, the launch and the operation of satellites, as well as training of personnel,” said Shoichiro Asada, who heads the company’s aerospace division.

Maintaining the necessary skills by keeping production lines humming is another challenge for the domestic aerospace industry. Small businesses are supporting the foundation of rocket production, which requires tens of thousands of parts.

To enable them to keep their skills up to date, at least four launches a year are necessary, a condition that is rarely met. Mitsubishi Heavy expects 15 percent of its subcontractors in the rocket business, which total 370, to quit the business unless the launch frequency is increased.

The government is offering support in this respect by promoting launches of intelligence-gathering satellites and GPS satellites.