Fueling trust in rocket science

In the short span of one month, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency has successfully launched three rockets, each carrying a satellite. This success has increased trust in JAXA’s technological capability, raising Japan’s hopes of entering the commercial rocket business.

On Jan. 24, the H2A No. 8 rocket lifted off from the Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture and placed the Advanced Land Observing Satellite, nicknamed Daichi (Earth), into orbit. This was followed by the Feb. 18 launch, from the same space center, of the H2A No. 9 rocket, which sent the Multifunctional Transport Satellite 2 for weather observation and air traffic control into orbit.

Most recently, on Feb. 22, an M5 No. 8 rocket blasted off from the Uchinoura Space Center, also in Kagoshima Prefecture, at 6:28 a.m. Two hours later, it was confirmed that the ASTRO-F satellite for infrared astronomical observation had entered orbit, with its solar cell panel spread.

Although JAXA suffered a long blank period following the H2A No. 6 rocket’s launch failure in 2003, it has been doing well since launches resumed in February 2005.

ASTRO-F, nicknamed Akari (Light) and shaped like a cylinder (3.7 meters long, 2 meters across, and weighing 952 kg), travels in an orbit that passes over the North and South Poles at an altitude of 745 km. Equipped with a 68.5-cm-aperture telescope cooled with liquid helium, and circling the Earth above the twilight zone, the satellite will make an all-sky survey in the wavelength range of 1.7 microns (near-infrared) to 180 (far-infrared).

Infrared observation makes it possible to see stars that are so far away, or whose temperature is so low, that they are otherwise invisible. The satellite will discover millions of new celestial bodies, including those more than 13 billion light years away, and make a detailed “map” of the universe with 10 times more sensitivity than existed with the first such map made by IRAS (Infrared Astronomical Satellite), jointly launched in 1983 by Britain, the United States and the Netherlands.

ASTRO-F’s telescope is cooled to minus 267 C by liquid helium to suppress its own thermal radiation, which hinders observation. The satellite, which cost about 13.4 billion yen to develop, will be in operation as long as the liquid helium lasts — about 550 days.

ASTRO-F’s scientific mission includes detecting more than 10 million newborn galaxies, investigating the origin and evolution of galaxies, observing the formation of new stars and the death of old stars, and searching for planetary systems outside the solar system.

JAXA’s mission schedule has tightened following the successful ASTRO-F launch. In fiscal 2006, starting April 1, three H2A rockets are scheduled to carry two data-collection satellites and one satellite to test telecommunications technology, and an M5 rocket is to launch a solar observation satellite.

JAXA was established in October 2003 through a merger of the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA), the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) and the National Aerospace Laboratory of Japan. A month later, though, the launch of the H2A No. 6 rocket carrying a data-gathering satellite failed because solid fuel boosters did not separate from the main rocket after lift-off. As a result of that failure, there were no launches — either of Japan’s mainstay H2A rockets developed by NASDA or of the ISAS-developed M5s (for delivering scientific research satellites) — in 2004.

Since the successful launch of the H2A No. 7 rocket in February 2005, JAXA has launched two more H2A rockets and two M5 rockets. As far as the H2A rockets are concerned, JAXA has been successful in eight of nine launches, for a success rate of 89 percent. This approaches the 90 to 94 percent success rate of mainstay rockets launched overseas. JAXA hopes that H2A rockets will become competitive enough in the eyes of the international market — now dominated by the U.S., European Union and Russia — to place commercial satellites into orbit.

It will take a longer series of successful rocket launches to impress potential customers with JAXA’s reliability. Even with that, JAXA’s path to viability in the global rocket business won’t be easy. One problem is cost, which is 20 percent to 30 percent higher for JAXA rockets than for those of overseas competitors.

Following the Feb. 22 launch, Mr. Keiji Tachikawa, head of JAXA, said the feat may help put Japan’s space program in a stable orbit. He added that to establish a solid reputation in world competition, JAXA probably needs to launch rockets and satellites about 20 times without a failure. Thus it needs to show more concrete results in the placement of both commercial and scientific research satellites.