Japan launches reusable rocket project, chasing Musk's SpaceX

Japan's national space agency will work with nearly 30 Japanese companies and institutions to develop reusable rockets with the goal of reducing launch costs to less than a fourth of current levels, Nikkei has learned.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and ANA Holdings are included in the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) project, which aims for a maiden reusable rocket launch by 2030. The move is designed to boost cost competitiveness to the level of global market leader SpaceX, run by Tesla chief executive Elon Musk.

Japan's main rockets, such as the H-IIA and the Epsilon, are not designed to be recovered after launch. If part of a rocket can be reused, launch costs significantly drop and orders for satellite launches from overseas are expected to increase.

SpaceX is leading the way in developing reusable rockets. Rocket launches by the company are estimated to cost about 6 billion yen ($52.9 million), compared with the roughly 10 billion yen for an H-IIA rocket. SpaceX has about a 60% share of the global commercial satellite launch market as of 2018.

Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, which oversees JAXA, has said reusable rockets that launch satellites are essential for the development of a next-generation system.

JAXA is expected to sign joint research contracts with about 30 companies and organizations. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, in cooperation with logistics company NYK Line, will look into retrieval methods using drones and ships. ANA will conduct research that applies its know-how in aircraft operations and maintenance. NIPPI Corporation and GH Craft, a Teijin subsidiary, will develop a gear system for landing.

Nagoya University will develop a vibration-resistant lithium-ion battery. Canon IT Solutions, a subsidiary of Canon Marketing Japan, will use mixed reality to streamline its manufacturing processes. Chiba Institute of Technology will study low-cost small electric pumps while Kanazawa Institute of Technology will study composite materials.

JAXA and partners plan to develop a prototype by 2026 and perform the first launch test four years after that. By establishing reusable technology and increasing the number of launches, they hope to reduce the cost to about 500 million yen by the early 2040s.

More than 24,800 satellites are expected to be launched globally between 2020 and 2030, according to U.S. research company Northern Sky Research. The market, which includes the manufacture and launch of satellites, is likely to grow by about 9% every year to more than $567 billion by 2030.

JAXA has been involved in the development of reusable technologies. Flight tests of the small RV-X rocket are scheduled to happen before March, while those of the CALLISTO rocket, which is closer to the practical stage in cooperation with Europe, are scheduled in fiscal 2024.

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