• Chunichi Shimbun

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Japan’s mainstay next-generation H3 rocket, developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), is now in the final stages of preparation for its first launch, to be conducted by the end of March 2022.

By keeping the launch cost of each rocket at half the conventional price, at ¥5 billion, developers aim to attract a wide range of commercial demand, including launching satellites for organizations overseas.

But with foreign companies such as U.S.-based SpaceX ahead of the game in offering low-cost rocket transport, some are asking whether there are opportunities for Japanese rockets to compete against their overseas rivals.

Putting car parts into space

On March 17, the first test model of the H3 rocket made its debut at the launch site at the Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture, as it was assembled, received fuels and underwent checking procedures down to the countdown just before the rocket launch.

JAXA celebrated the milestone, saying it had overcome one of the “biggest mountains.”

The H3 rocket — the largest domestic rocket ever — is the first in 28 years to be developed from scratch since the H-II rocket, whose development began in 1986.

In order to launch larger and heavier satellites, the H3 is 10 meters longer than the H-IIA rocket, at a length of 63 meters, and 1.2 meters larger, with a diameter of 5.2 meters. The main engine will be an LE-9, which is 1.4 times more powerful than the engine used in the H-IIA rocket.

The first test vehicle will be used to acquire flight data for mass production, and is also planned to launch the ALOS-3, an Earth observation satellite.

Development of the H3 rocket as the successor to the H-IIA, the current mainstay rocket, began in 2014. With a launch cost of ¥10 billion, the H-IIA rocket wasn’t sufficiently price competitive with those produced by companies overseas, and was being used only by the government to launch meteorological satellites.

“We have reduced the cost by eliminating unnecessary items as much as possible,” to attract a wide range of customers from overseas and the private sector, JAXA’s project manager Masashi Okada said about the newer rocket.

One change that contributed greatly to lowering costs was the use of car parts for the rocket. Previously, parts specially developed for rockets were produced in small quantities, making them relatively expensive.

By replacing parts that would not be affected by radiation in space — such as capacitors that control electric currents — with commercially available automotive parts, they were able to switch to using car parts for 90% of the electronic components in the rocket.

In the manufacturing stage, JAXA and MHI were able to automate the riveting process, which used to be done by hand. For manufacturing parts, 3D printers are also used.

The goal was to reduce the cost to ¥5 billion, half the conventional cost. With the H3, MHI and JAXA aim to increase the number of launches per year from between one and three to about six, three of which would be for commercial satellites from Japan and overseas.

Hundredth of a millimeter precision

Companies in the Chubu region in central Japan are also contributing to the project using their manufacturing technologies.

Nagoya-based Yamashita Kosakusyo Co., which manufactures tools known as jigs that hold other components in place when assembling the rocket, was awarded a contract following its involvement in the H-IIA rocket project.

In order to increase the number of launches, the construction period for the H3 rocket has been shortened from two years to one year. Assembling the rocket requires precision to a hundredth of a millimeter, so jigs will play an important role in achieving that shorter construction period without compromising quality.

“We want to support this dream project with our technology,” said Rie Yamashita, president of Yamashita Kosakusyo.

The original plan was to launch the first test vehicle by the end of March, but that was postponed for a year after there was a problem with the newly developed, higher-power engine.

“We have finally reached this point after repeated trial and error,” said Tokio Nara, MHI’s chief project manager. “We received a lot of support from local companies in the Chubu region for parts processing and assembly.”

Growing commercial demand

Price competition for rockets is becoming increasingly fierce worldwide.

SpaceX, led by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, has developed technology to recover and reuse engines that fall into the sea, and has already reduced its launch price to ¥6 billion.

French company Arianespace, which has a large share in the market for commercial satellite launches, will also launch a next-generation satellite in 2022 at a reduced price.

“Even though ¥5 billion is a price that can compete in the global market, it doesn’t mean they have an advantage over their rivals,” cautioned Shogo Yakame, a senior consultant at Nomura Research Institute. He stressed that the key to increasing orders will be to improve the reliability and flexibility of the launch.

With only one failure in 43 launches, the H-IIA has a high success rate (97.7%) — higher than the world standard of 95%.

MHI and JAXA aim to ensure that the reliability of the H3, which is expected to be used for the next 20 years, is maintained.

According to an estimate by a U.S. investment firm, the size of the space business market will more than double to ¥100 trillion over the next 20 years.

Demand for commercial satellite launches is increasing due to the use of GPS for self-driving cars and cloud services that handle large amounts of data.

“The key is whether they can offer the service flexibly when clients want to launch satellites,” said Yakame of Nomura Research Institute.

This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published April 5.

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