H-2A rocket
The Japanese-built H-2 rocket is 48 meters in height, weighs 260 tons and can carry a 2,200 kilogram payload into geostationary orbit. It had five successful launches before 1998 but was very expensive — costing Japan twice as much to launch per payload as Europe's Arian rockets — partly because of Japan’s insistance of an "all-made-in-Japan" rocket.

The M-5 is a three-stage solid-fuel rocket capable of lifting 1.8 tons into orbit at a height of 250 kilometers. Six were launched. All but one launch was successful but the rockets were scrapped because they were too expensive (each launch cost ¥7 billion).

The H-2A is a 290-ton, 53 meter (172-foot) rocket first launched on August 29, 2001. Made with foreign parts that reduced it costs by half, it has boosters and two liquid-filled engines and has been used to launch commercial satellites and spy satellites. In the future it hoped that the H-2A will be used to launch an unmanned space shuttle.

Three launches, two H-2s and an M-5, beginning in 1998, ended in failures, costing Japan 18 launch contracts with two U.S. satellite manufacturers. A launch failure of an H-2A in 2003 was described as “the world’s most expensive firework’s display.”

Japan had six successful launches in 2006, four with H-2A rockets. In December 2006, Japan successfully launched its heaviest satellite ever, the Kiku No. 8 test satellite. Weighing 5.8 tons, it was launched from an H-2A liquid fuel rocket with four solid-fuel boosters. The satellite was placed in geostationary orbit and uses two huge 18-meter-long antennae. There were some problems unfolding of the antennae.

As of November 2009, there had been 10 consecutive successful H-2A launches and 15 successful launches overall. After the unsuccessful launch in 2003 the H-2A had eight straight successful launches. As of 2008, the success rate of the H2-A rocket is 93 percent (11 of 12 launches), deemed good enough for commercial applications.

In January 2010 IHI Corp decided to liquidate the GX rocket development program after the government decided to opt out of the project a month before. The GX rocket project was scrapped because it consumed too much money and its prospects as a commercial satellite launcher seemed dim.

Websites and Resources

communications satellite
Good Websites and Sources: Japan Aerospace Exploration and Agency (JAXA) jaxa.jp ; JAXA International Space Station Page iss.jaxa.jp ; KIBO kibo.jaxa.jp/en ; Institute of Space and Astronautical Science isas.ac.jp ; Space Environment Information Service hirweb.nict.go.jp ; Astronomy Astronomy in Japan www2.gol.com/users/stever/jastro ; National Astronomical Observatory of Japan nao.ac.jp

Links in this Website: SCIENCE IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; NOBEL PRIZES IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE SPACE PROGRAM Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; TECHNOLOGY IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; GADGETRY AND INVENTIONS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; ROBOTS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; SONY, TOYOTA AND HONDA ROBOTS Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; UNIVERSITIES IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ;

Good Websites and Sources on Science: Japan Science and Technology Agency jst.go.jp/EN ; MEXT, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology mext.go.jp/english ; Science Links Japan sciencelinks.jp ; Stanford University J-Guide to Science and Technology jguide.stanford.edu ;Japan Advanced Institute of Science of Technology jaist.ac.jp ; Japan Institute of Invention and Innovation jiii.or.jp/english ; Statistical Handbook of Japan Science and Technology Chapter stat.go.jp/english/data/handbook ; 2010 Edition stat.go.jp/english/data/nenkan ; News stat.go.jp ; Trends in Japan: Science and Technology web-japan.org/trends/science ; Book: “Japanese Science From the Inside” by Samuel Coleman (Routledge, 2000).

Science Museums National Museum of Nature and Science kahaku.go.jp/english ; Museum of Natural History — Tohuku University dges.tohoku.ac.jp/museum ; Osaka Museum of Natural History mus-nh.city.osaka.jp ; National Science Museum (Ueno Park in Tokyo) kahaku.go.jp National Museum of Nature and Science and Technology Tokyotopia tokyotopia.com ; Research Centers: Tsukuba Science City Wikipedia Article Wikipedia ; Fujitsu Laboratories fujitsu.com/group/labs ; Hitachi Research Laboratories hitachi.com/rd/hrl ; Toshiba Research and Development Center toshiba.co.jp

Commercial Launch of Japan’s H-2A

In May 2012, Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Japan launched an H-2A rocket that put a commercial satellite into orbit for the first time. The rocket was carrying four satellites, including a South Korean commercial satellite, when it was launched from the Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture at 1:39 a.m.. All satellites were confirmed to have been put into orbit, the center said. This was the 21st H-2A rocket to be launched and was the 15th time in a row that one blasted off without a hitch, raising the rocket's success rate to 95.2 percent. The only time a rocket failed was the sixth launch in 2003. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, May 19, 2012]

“Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., which was in charge of the launch, intends to make a full-scale entry into overseas markets for satellite launches, company officials said. "We could emphasize the strong reliability of our rocket technology," said Motohisa Furukawa, state minister for space development. "The government will support [the rocket industry] to secure opportunities for commercial launches," he added.

“The rocket was first of its kind to carry an overseas satellite since the first H-2A model was launched in 2001. The H-2A rocket carried a South Korean multipurpose satellite known as KOMPSAT-3 or Arirang-3, two Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency satellites, Shizuku and SDS-4, and a Kyushu Institute of Technology satellite, Horyu-2. Arirang-3 is equipped with an optical camera, which will be used to take high-resolution images to gather geographical information as well as environmental and agricultural data. Shizuku will measure rain and vapor to monitor global climate change and water circulation. The cost of the launch was not announced because it was a commercial operation.

“In December 2011, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “An H2A rocket carrying a radar intelligence-gathering satellite was successfully launched from Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture, with the satellite confirmed to have been put into orbit, the center said.The country began launching such satellites following the 1998 firing of a ballistic missile by North Korea, with the monitoring of military facilities in the isolated country as their main mission. Radar satellites use radio waves to detect objects even at night or through clouds, while optical ones carry powerful digital telescopic cameras. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, December 13, 2011]

“The nation's intelligence plan calls for two radar and two optical satellites. However, only optical satellites have been in orbit before the launch because two previous radar satellites, launched in 2003 and 2007, malfunctioned before reaching their five-year design life. With its 20th launch, H2A rockets have had 19 successful missions since their initial launch in 2001, with 14 consecutive successes since a 2003 failure. Their success rate has reached 95 percent, which is considered a reliable record in the global space industry, according to the center.

H-2B No.3 Rocket

The powerful H-2B No. 3 rocket in Japan’s largest domestically-made rocket. Like other Japanese rockets, it is launched from JAXA's Tanegashima Space Center in the town of Minami-Tane, Kagoshima Prefecture. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 22, 2012]

The H-2B, which is designed to be launched once a year, is 56.6 meters high and weighs 531 tons. It was jointly developed by JAXA and Mitsubishi Heavy for the purpose of carrying the Kounotori, which has a payload capacity of 16.5 tons. The rocket is twice as effective as H-2A rockets at launching satellites into orbit, JAXA said. Like the H-2A, the country's mainstay rocket, the H-2B's first and second components are propelled through the reaction of liquefied hydrogen and liquefied oxygen.

Following the decommissioning last year of U.S. space shuttles, the Kounotori has been gaining international attention as a means of transporting large payloads into space, JAXA said. JAXA plans to develop a "homing version" of the Kounotori that will be used to return ISS equipment to Earth, JAXA officials said.

H-2B No. 3 Rocket Sends Spacecraft to ISS

In July 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “An H-2B rocket carrying the unmanned Kounotori 3 cargo vehicle successfully lifted off and the cargo vehicle successfully docked with the International Space Station, JAXA announced. The docking of the Kounotori with the ISS was carried out by Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, using the ISS's robotic arm in collaboration with an American colleague. The cargo vehicle, weighing in at 4.6 tons, carried such supplies as food and other daily necessities, a water tank for feeding killifish and a device for releasing small satellites into space. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 22, 2012]

This is the third time in a row that the H-2B has been vaulted into orbit carrying the Kounotori cargo vehicle, following successful launches in September 2009 and January 2011. With the third successful launch of the H-2B rocket, Japan can be said to have firmly established launching technology for large rockets, JAXA said.

“Tetsuro Yamada wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “The successful launch of an H-2B rocket boosted the combined success rate of H-2A and H-2B rockets to 95.8 percent, indicating the nation's satellite launch technology is now set to take off. Future launches of the domestically produced rockets will be handled by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., the rockets' manufacturer, as opposed to previous launches managed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. The nation is now set to become a major player in the field of commercial satellite launches. [Source: Tetsuro Yamada, Yomiuri Shimbun, July 22, 2012]

Commercial Potential of the H-2B No. 3 Rocket

Tetsuro Yamada wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “With a current lineup of its core H-2A product and the latest H-2B, MHI will aim to win orders for commercial launches of foreign satellites. However, competition is tough in the market, particularly with foreign rivals. [Source: Tetsuro Yamada, Yomiuri Shimbun, July 22, 2012]

As the size of major geostationary satellites has increased to five to six tons in recent years, rockets used to launch such satellites have also become bigger. "By adding the H-2B to our rocket lineup, we'll have more chances to receive orders to launch satellites," said an official of the company's space venture department.

“However, although Japanese rockets are of high quality, they are also costly. Currently, Russia, the United States and some European countries dominate the global market. So far, MHI has won only one order, to launch a South Korean satellite with the H-2A rocket in May. The company still mainly relies on the Japanese government for launch orders.

“Emerging competitors in the United States have adopted price-busting strategies and developed low-priced rockets, which have rapidly increased their presence in the industry. In July 2012, the government established a space strategy office in the Cabinet Office, which supervises the nation's space policy.

Stiff Competition for Japan Commercial Rocket Launch Business

Jun Onoda wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “The manufacturing and launching costs for an H-2A rocket total 8 billion yen to 10 billion yen, which is relatively expensive compared to U.S. and European competitors. To win the recent satellite business, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries lowered fees for each satellite operator by allocating their fixed costs depending on the weight of the respective satellites. [Source: Jun Onoda, Yomiuri Shimbun, May 18, 2012]

H-2A rockets have recently been losing ground to overseas competitors. "We receive one order after negotiating with 100 satellite operators," said Shoichiro Asada, general manager of the firm's Space Systems Department. According to Asada, the company's H-2A business is barely profitable. In order to prevent the business from falling into the red, Asada said, "We should launch an H-2A rocket four times a year.”

“The company receives two or three launch orders from the government per year, so it needs to gain one or two additional orders from private companies to stay profitable. However, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries receives few domestic orders. For example, Sky Perfect JSAT Corp., a Japanese satellite broadcasting operator, has hired a European firm, Arianespace, to launch its communication satellite. In light of this situation, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has tried to find ways to boost their international business.

“Meanwhile, a U.S.-based startup called SpaceX has opened a rocket launch business using inexpensive "falcon" rockets, the price of which is almost half that of their H-2A counterparts. Other countries including India have also been developing their own rockets, which will likely lead to a further decline in price.

“To counter such moves, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries plans to use the same aluminum material for the H-2A rocket and for a new passenger aircraft currently under development, which should cut its manufacturing costs. Additionally, the H-2A's built-in computer currently costs more than 100 million yen, but the company is considering improving vehicle navigation systems to also be used for this purpose, the company said.

Japanese Satellites

solar observation satellite
Japan launched its first satellite, the 24-kilogram, NEC-built Ohsumi, in 1970. Mitsubishi launched Japan’s first geostationary satellite, Kiku-II, in 1977.

In March 2006, Japan successfully launched its first infrared satellite, the Astro-5 observation satellite, with an infrared telescope designed to search deep space for planets. It was launched from Uchinoura Space center on a three-stage, 30.8-meter-high, M-5 rocket. It was the third successful space launch in a month. Two previous satellites had been sent up on H-2A liquid fuel rockets.

September 2006, Japan successfully launched a solar observation satellite on an M-5 solid fuel rocket. The third solar observation satellite launched by Japan, it is equipped with telescopes capable of detecting optical wavelength, X-rays and extreme ultraviolet waves

In February 2008, Japan successfully launched a 2.7-ton satellite designed for high-speed Internet transmissions, on an H-2A rocket. The project was delayed and cost $500 million and many questioned its cost effectiveness, especially when considering that land-based Internet service has become much faster and efficient. Japan had hoped to set up its own version of a GPS but that projects looks like it will collapse out of a lack of real need for such a system

In January 2009, eight satellites were launched a board an H-2A rocket. The rocket and the satellites were all successfully launched, the satellites includes one that will observe lighting and carbon dioxide concentrations.

Japanese Spy Satellites

In March 2003, Japan launched its first two spy satellites from Tanegashima Island off of Kyushu. They were launched with a H2A rocket and placed in polar orbit at altitudes of 400 to 600 kilometers. One of their main purposes is to keep an eye on North Korea and its nuclear reactors and missiles. The satellites were made by a consortium of Japanese companies headed by Mitsubishi Electric and are part of a $2.1 billion public and private project.

After China successfully blew up the weather satellite in space in January 2007, Japan quietly overturned a law restricting its space program from being put to use for military purposes.

Japan has launched its own spy satellites because it doesn’t want to rely on American satellites. Photos from American satellites are often expensive and delayed. Often times requests were turned down for security reasons. With their own satellites, Japan can get information whenever it wants.

The launch of a second set spy satellite in November 2003 was a failure. The satellites and rockets were destroyed because one of the two boosters failed to separate.

In February 2007, Japan put its 4th spy satellite into orbit, giving its satellite system full global coverage and allowing the Japanese military to survey the entire globe: to photograph any point on earth at least once a day. Of the four satellites two have optical sensors and two have synthetic aperture radar. The optical satellites can discern objects as small as on meter on the ground. There are plans to launch one in 2009 that can discern objects as small as 60 centimeters, compared to nine centimeters on the most advanced U.S. military satellites.

Each of these four satellites is designed to orbit the earth 15 times and observe any location on earth at least once a day. Within a few years Japan hopes to have 16 to 20 spy satellites orbiting the earth.

Japanese Commercial Satellites

communications satellite
Japan had hoped to enter the commercial satellite business in the 1980s. A lot government money was pumped into rocket and satellite projects with that goal in mind. The current cost of lofting a satellite with an H-2A rocket is between ¥10 billion and ¥12 billion. Analysts say is necessary to reduce the cost to ¥8 billion to compete with Europe and the United States.

In 2007 the H-2A rocket program was privatized and transferred from JAXA and the government to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI). In April 2007, MHI announced that was in discussion with European competitors to work together to offer satellite-launching services.

The satellite-launching market is dominated by Russia (43 percent), Europe (24 percent) and the United States. Japanese launches cost about 20 percent to 30 percent more than European ones and the launch period is limited dot 190 days a year because of concerns about damaging fishing boats in the launch area.

Japan aims to become more competitive in the satellite industry by developing mini satellites that will be considerably cheaper to launch because of their small size. The aim is to develop satellites with desired features that weigh between 100 kilograms and 300 kilograms rather than the standard three tons and launch them by 2011.

In October 2008, MHI announced that it probably win a contract to launch a weather observation South Korean satellite in a H-2A rocket in 2010. If the contract does work it will be the first commercial launch on an H-2A rocket.

Japan is providing economic aid to Vietnam for its space program, which involves making earth observation satellites.

Japanese Navigation Satellites

In September 2010. Japan successfully launched and positioned the four-ton, “quasi-zenith” GPS satellite Michibiki aboard an H-2A rocket. Working in conjunction with U.S. GPS satellites, Michibiki will eliminate blind spots and increase the accuracy of GPS navigation devices from four of five meters to less than one meter.

Navigation satellites work by sending out a stream of data on its location and time, which is measured by an atomic clock. The receiver notes the difference between the time the data was sent by the satellite and the time it was received. Using this information it can calculate its own distance from the satellite, and then determine its own location. Radio waves travel at 300,000 kilometers per second. An error of 0.000001 second in time results in an error of 300 meters in distance. To accurately determine a location a locator needs to receive signals from at least four navigation satellites simultaneously.

Eight to 11 of the 30 U.S. GPS satellites pass near Japan. Because Japan has so many high buildings and mountains locations that can block satellite signals it can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint certain location. The Michibiki has helped overcome this problem.

Japan wants to set up its own GPS system. It has plans to launch seven “quasi-zenith” satellites over two years from 2014. Japan hopes the system — which will cost around $2.5 billion — will become the Asian standard for things like car navigation and cell phone location systems as well as emergency system that perhaps could keep trains from colliding. In June 2011, the Strategy Headquarter for Space development said it would launch four satellites rather seven to save money without sacrificing any accuracy. The four satellite system would cost $1.7 billion and free up money for earthquake and tsunami relief.

Image Sources: JAXA, Hayabusa from Wiki Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2012

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