Clock ticking for Japanese rocket startup Interstellar
Failed initial launch of minirocket followed successful attempts by US rivals
TOKYO -- Although Interstellar Technologies' Momo rocket failed in its first attempt to reach space, the Japanese startup aims to have a more advanced version ready as early as the fall, trying to keep up in the race to develop the small, inexpensive launch vehicles seen as the industry's next big thing.
"It will be about three months from now, but we will develop a cheaper, more maintainable Momo," said Interstellar co-founder Takafumi Horie -- the Japanese entrepreneur best known for internet portal Livedoor -- at a news conference after the July 30 launch of the country's first rocket developed wholly by the private sector.
The test rocket -- just 10 meters tall -- flew 66 seconds before communications were lost and the engines shut off, likely because of damage to the craft. It reached an estimated height of about 20km, later splashing down off of Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido.
Despite the trouble, the launch was significant as Interstellar's first live test. "We did not reach our target of 100km, but in terms of the data collected, it was a satisfying result," said CEO Takahiro Inagawa.
Rocket development in Japan has been led by the government-backed Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, and its predecessors, which suffered their own setbacks over the last half-century. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries operates one of the products of these programs. The H-IIA rocket, informed by the failures of predecessor H-II and an unsuccessful launch in 2003, is now a world-class launch system, boasting a 97% success rate.
Unlike JAXA, Interstellar lacks deep pockets. The startup managed to keep launch costs under 50 million yen ($451,000) by performing computer-simulated tests and incorporating existing engine technology. It has raised money through sponsorship deals and crowd funding.
Nor does the young company have the luxury of time. Interstellar aims to launch a rocket able to lift an ultrasmall satellite into orbit by 2020. Meanwhile, U.S. startup Vector Space Systems is planning to release a similar craft as early as next year. In May, Vector and compatriot Rocket Lab both had successful test launches.
U.S. research firm SpaceWorks predicts 460 launches of satellites weighing 1kg to 50kg in 2023, more than four and a half times the number in 2016. Small rockets are drawing attention for their low cost and greater flexibility in choosing the timing and trajectory of launches. With larger rockets like the H-IIA, ultrasmall satellites travel into orbit as part of multiple payloads, necessitating coordination that cramps scheduling.
Hokkaido-based Interstellar's strength lies in the quick decision-making that a small, private-sector outfit can muster -- hence the talk of a three-month turnaround on the next model. Should it demonstrate the ability to reach space with Momo, it would be able to apply that technology to its 2020 goal.
"If you exclude the damage to the body, I think we are halfway to a rocket system that can achieve orbit insertion," said co-founder Horie.
Quelle: Asian Review