Japan’s Epsilon-3 rocket successfully places private NEC satellite into orbit

Kyodo

An Epsilon-3 solid fuel rocket successfully placed an Earth observation satellite into orbit Thursday morning, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said.

The rocket carrying the ASNARO-2, a small radar satellite developed by NEC Corp., lifted off from the Uchinoura Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture at 6:06 a.m. and put the satellite into orbit at around 7 a.m., according to the agency.

The Epsilon-3, a 26-meter-long, three-stage rocket, was the third of its type to be successfully launched, following flights in 2013 and 2016. On Thursday it carried a private satellite for the first time, with the previous two rockets having transported JAXA satellites.

The Epsilon’s design and smaller size allows reduced operating costs and more frequent launches than the mainstay H-2A and H-2B rockets, which burn liquid fuel.

JAXA said it foresees demand increasing for the launch of smaller satellites, and hopes the successful flight of Epsilon-3 will help boost orders.

“We aim to strengthen our competitiveness in launching small satellites,” JAXA President Naoki Okumura told a news conference.

The Epsilon rocket is equipped with artificial intelligence technology that reduces labor and launch costs. It can be controlled from the ground by just two computers.

Compared with its predecessor — the M5 rocket, which was retired in 2006 — the Epsilon-3 cuts launch costs by one-third to some ¥5 billion ($45 million). JAXA aims to further reduce the costs to ¥3 billion.

The ASNARO-2 satellite, developed by NEC with support from the industry ministry, is able to identify objects as small as 1 meter wide on the ground, as well as capture images at night and when there is cloud cover.

NEC will provide pictures of areas affected by disasters or deforestation to research institutes and local governments.

The rocket launch was initially planned for November but was postponed due to a technical problem. It was rescheduled for Wednesday, but bad weather forced the launch to be put off for an extra day.