Saturday’s successful launch of a solid-fuel Epsilon rocket was seen as a breakthrough for Japans’ space industry, marking the culmination of a host of ideas that could lead to major cost reductions in the future.
The relatively small rocket was developed with an eye on countries planning to build small, low-cost satellites that are increasingly being used for scientific research and observation.
The immediate business prospects for the rocket, however, do not look so bright amid intensifying international competition.
“It opened the curtain of a new era,” Yasuhiro Morita, a professor leading a team of researchers at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, said at a news conference following Saturday’s launch at Uchinoura Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture.
JAXA’s earlier launch attempt on Aug. 27 was canceled 19 seconds before the planned liftoff as the computer controlling the launch detected an abnormality in the rocket’s posture, which was later found to be normal. The computer configuration for processing monitoring data was cited as the cause of the problem.
The Epsilon is the successor to the M-5 rocket, which was retired in 2006 due to high costs after it sent up space probes such as the famous Hayabusa.
Cost reduction was the priority in developing the Epsilon. No new engine was designed for it, employing instead the H-IIA’s solid booster and part of the M-5.
The Epsilon is packed with new features, such as artificial intelligence for autonomous checks of the vehicle and the use of laptop computers to control rockets.
“It used to take 60 people and three hours to check 300 sections for the pre-launch inspection, but the Epsilon can be inspected in 70 seconds with three people and two PCs,” Morita said.
Due to the simplification, the first Epsilon cost ¥5.3 billion, about 70 percent of the cost of the M-5. JAXA aims to lower the cost even further to ¥3 billion by 2017 for Epsilon No. 2 and its successors.
JAXA is also planning to incorporate cost-cutting measures for the next generation of large-size rockets, tentatively designated the H-III.
Another component of the domestic rocket program is the large-size liquid fuel-propelled H-IIA and H-IIB. With no launch failures over the past 10 years, these have established a reputation for reliability.
The solid fuel rocket is a proprietary technology of Japan, stemming from the “pencil” rocket created half a century ago by a team led by Hideo Itokawa, one of the pioneers of the country’s space program.
Solid fuel is easier to handle and can be stored for long periods at room temperature. Overseas it has been used for missiles, but here its use has been limited to rockets carrying scientific satellites into space.
The Epsilon came onto the scene seven years after the M-5 was retired.
“We started the program hoping to contribute to science, but now we want to spur the small satellite market and be its leader,” Morita said, adding that the Epsilon’s convenient launch method makes it suitable for commercial use.
The Epsilon, which is 24.4 meters high and weighs 91 tons, is about half the size of the mainstay H-IIA rocket. The H-IIA and H-IIB are intended for launching large satellites.
Ichita Yamamoto, minister of state for space policy, said, “We want to boost the competitiveness of (Japan’s) space industry with the Epsilon.”
Globally, about 70 rockets are launched every year. Commercial satellites account for about one-third of the launches and nearly all of them are split between Europe and Russia.
Competition has intensified recently with the entry of China and U.S. businesses into the market. Japan has yet to capture much of the market other than from the government sector due to high costs and relatively limited launch experience.
The second Epsilon is expected to launch in two years. The schedule for successor rockets has not yet been finalized.
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