THE SUCCESSFUL launch of MOMO-3, a small rocket developed by a startup company, represents a first step in a new era in which the private sector is expected to play a part in commercialising outer space, which has so far been led by the Japanese government.
The rocket, which blasted off on May 4, was developed by Interstellar Technologies Inc, based in Taiki, Hokkaido.
“We demonstrated from a technical aspect that it is possible to produce low-priced rockets,” chief executive officer Takahiro Inagawa said at a press conference after the launch.
The firm, established in 2013, launched MOMO-1 in 2017, but the rocket suffered damage in flight.
The launch of MOMO-2 also ended in failure in 2018 when it failed just after liftoff, and burst into flames. At long last, the 10-metre-tall MOMO-3 became the nation’s first space rocket developed single-handedly by the private sector that could reach outer space.
The development of the nation’s leading rockets, such as H2A, with a total height of 53 metres, has been led by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and other organisations. In recent years, however, private companies have entered the field.
Four companies, including Canon Electronics Inc and Shimizu Corp, jointly established Space One Co in Tokyo in 2018 with the aim of developing its own 18-metre-high rocket and launching it in fiscal 2021. More than 100 companies around the world are said to have embarked on the development of small rockets. US startup Rocket Lab succeeded in making a commercial launch last November.
Companies’ moves to develop small rockets come amid an increasing demand for the launch of microsatellites, which weigh 100 kilograms or less. Early satellites, laden with custom-made equipment, were large in size with high production costs. However, it has become possible in recent years to manufacture smaller satellites at a lower cost. A US research company estimates that 2,000 to 2,800 microsatellites weighing from 1 kilogram to 50 kilograms are waiting to be launched in the next five years.
University of Tokyo Professor Shinichi Nakasuka, who specialises in satellite engineering, said, “If a large rocket like the H2A launches a microsatellite, it will have to piggyback other satellites as well, and thus there will be no freedom in choosing the time of the launch. Expectations for small, flexible rockets are high.”