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Japan Launches Cubesat to Orbit With World’s Smallest Rocket, Enters Small Sat Launch Market

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s SS-520 rocket lifts off from the launching pad at Uchinoura Space Center in Kimotsuki, Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo on 3 February, 2018. Photograph courtesy of Kyodo/via REUTERS.

Following on the heels of the successful Rocket Labs Electron rocket launch from New Zealnd on 20 January, 2018, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has successfully launched on 3 February, 2018, a 3 kilogram Cubesat into low Earth orbit using the smallest rocket ever to launch a satellite into orbit.

The SS-520-5 launch rocket, a modified JAXA sounding rocket with a third stage, lifted off from the Uchinoura Space Centre in the Kagoshima Prefecture and successfully placed its payload – a TRICOM-1R Earth observation Cubesat built by the University of Tokyo – into orbit.

The successful launch of SS-520-5 occurred almost a year after the same type of rocket failed after launch in January 2017.

While there are no immediate plans to launch other Cubesats with the SS-520 launcher, Japan has now well positioned itself in the small satellite launch market along with the U.S./New Zealand company Rocket Labs. In late January, Japanese companies IHI Aerospace and Canon Electronics, along with Shimizu and the Development Bank of Japan, announced a consortium to propose building and operating Japan’s first private space launch site near the town of Kushimoto, at the southernmost point of the main Japanese island of Honshu, in the Wakayama Prefecture. A final decision on the location, however, has yet to be made.

JAXA already operates to space launch sites in Japan: the Tanegashima Space Centre and the Uchinoura Space Centre. The consortium hopes to have the private launch site operational by 2021.

To date, only Rocket Labs and JAXA have successfully demonstrated a dedicated small satellite launch capability. Others, such as Virgin Orbit, hope to follow soon with a successful demonstration of capability, but more and more small satellite launch companies are emerging in an effort to meet what many analysts believe will be explosive growth in the number of nano- and Cube satellites in the coming few years.

This launch market is likely to become very competitive, however, increasing the possibility that, “there will be a shakeout, as vehicles that don’t run into technical or funding problems during their development struggle to win customers in what may be a very competitive market. That may not be surprising, even to the investors who are backing many of these new launch ventures,” according to space industry journalist Jeff Foust, writing recently in The Space Review.

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