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Japanese Rocket Successfully Launches Two Satellites

February 12, 1998

Japan's H-II rocket heads for space. (Photo: National Space Deveopment Agency of Japan)

Japan's National Space Development Agency (NASDA) successfully placed two satellites in orbit from an H-II rocket launched November 28, 1997, from the Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima, Kyushu. One of these, a climate observation satellite developed jointly by Japan and the United States, was the first foreign unit to be placed in orbit by a Japanese rocket. The success of this mission has drawn attention to the reliability of Japan's rocket technology, and marks a big step toward the nation's entry into the international business of commercial satellite launching.

Two Satellites Ready for Work
NASDA's No. 6 H-II rocket blasted off with two satellites aboard: a climate observation satellite for the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, which NASDA developed jointly with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and a Japanese experimental satellite, the Engineering Test Satellite VII (known as Kiku No. 7). The two-stage rocket deployed the TRMM satellite 14 minutes after launch, and Kiku No. 7 28 minutes into its flight.

The TRMM satellite will be used to measure rainfall in the earth's tropical regions, and should contribute to our understanding of abnormal weather patterns and to our ability to predict climatic change. It was placed in a low-earth orbit about 350 kilometers above the equator, from where it will observe rain, electrical storms, and cloud patterns for the next three years using microwave, infrared, and radar sensors. Tropical rainfall is a major factor in the circulation of the earth's water, and as such has tremendous influence on changes in climate, but until now there was no way to measure rainfall over the oceans, which cover much of the earth's tropical zone. The rainfall data gathered by the TRMM satellite should therefore enhance our understanding of such phenomena as El Nino, which brings abnormal weather to many parts of the globe.

Kiku No. 7, meanwhile, will carry out the first fully automated rendezvous and docking between satellites. It is actually composed of two satellites: the Orihime and the Hikoboshi, which share names with the stars Altair and Vega, featured in a well-known Japanese fairy tale. The experiment, to be carried out in June 1998, will see the two satellites separate at an altitude of approximately 550 kilometers and drift as far as 9 meters from one another. Then the Hikoboshi will track the Orihime's position as it approaches the second satellite, finally docking with its mate. With no manned space program, Japan's space activities must be entirely automated. This docking experiment, the first of its kind, will be a test of how smoothly two satellites can be automatically docked without jarring the delicate instruments on board.

Lowering Costs to Boost Business
Because of launch delays for the No. 5 H-II, this launch actually marks the fifth successful H-II mission. Anywhere from 5 to 10 successful launches are seen as necessary to prove the reliability of a rocket for the satellite-launching business, so the November mission was held to be an important step toward Japan's entry into the international market.

Continued growth in demand is expected for commercial satellite launches, particularly in the field of communications. The main competitors in the industry today are Europe, Russia, and the United States. A joint venture involving U.S. and Russian firms is now working on construction of a marine launch facility located on the equator, to take advantage of the high speed of the earth's rotation there. This venture has already lined up 29 launch contracts with U.S. and other satellite makers. Japan is getting a late start in the commercial launch business, but one domestic rocket launch firm set to use an improved version of the H-II has concluded a launch contract with an American satellite maker, and expects to make its full-scale market entry in the near future.

High launch costs are a major obstacle to entering this international market. The total cost of a single H-II rocket, from production to launch, now stands at approximately 19 billion yen (152 million U.S. dollars at 125 yen to the dollar). This cost must be greatly reduced for Japan to compete with already established market participants. NASDA is now working on the improved version of its rocket, the H-II-A, whose cost will be kept to about 8.5 billion yen (68 million dollars) through the simplification of the systems used from its production to its launch and the overseas procurement of its basic parts.

Laying the Groundwork for More Missions
A range of preparations for the expansion of the business are also under way. Due to legal issues relating to the local fishing industry, the launch window at the Tanegashima Space Center had previously been limited to 90 days divided between the summer and winter. But following an agreement reached with the local fisheries association in June 1997, the window has been expanded to 190 days per year. This was the first autumn launch allowed under the new system. The relaxation of these conditions not only allows more launches to take place, but also allows more flexibility in scheduling the missions. The number of launches each year is expected to rise from two to seven or eight in the future.

The Science and Technology Agency has also decided to establish a system whereby the national government will provide a fixed compensatory amount for personal injuries and damage to homes suffered in the case of a launch-related mishap. The state will provide, up to a certain limit, funds for medical treatment or property repairs not covered by insurance following an accident. This measure, intended to reduce the risk to commercial launch operators, indicates the government's intent to stand behind the private sector's entry into the global satellite-launch market. Compensatory systems are already in place in the major market players--Europe and the United States--and similar legal provisions are seen as a must in Japan from the competitive point of view.

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