Japan’s largest rocket company, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), has received a confidence vote as it seeks to compete for commercial launches in an increasingly crowded market. Earlier this month, the company announced an agreement with satellite operator Inmarsat for a launch in 2022 or later.
Importantly, the flight will take place on Mitsubishi’s new H3 rocket, which is designed and developed to fly at a lower cost to attract more commercial business. It was the first commercial contract for the rocket, which is expected to debut in 2020 by launching a satellite payload for the Japanese space agency JAXA.
JAXA and MHI want to increase the number of orbital launches annually from the current average of four to about eight. The only realistic way to do this is to increase the number of launch orders from commercial companies. And since MHI has tried to do this, it seems to have found a good partner in Inmarsat. As early as September 2017, Inmarsat selected MHI’s H-2A missile for the 2020 launch of its Inmarsat-6 F1 satellite.
And now the company has returned to MHI for a second consecutive order. This is a big win for the Japanese company, as Inmarsat could have chosen almost any number of competitors. Since it began launching satellites in 1990, the London-based satellite operator has flown on US Delta, Atlas and Falcon 9 rockets, multiple variants of the European Ariane launcher, and Russia’s Proton and Ukrainian Zenit vehicles.
“We have always maintained a portfolio of launch vehicles to account for contingencies,” Mark Dickinson, Inmarsat’s deputy chief technology officer and vice president of satellite operations, told Ars in an interview. The two recent launch contracts with the Japanese company reflect confidence in the reliability of its service, Dickinson said.
“We have a very good working relationship with them,” he said. MHI has given Inmarsat good insight into the technical development of the H3 rocket, both the successes and the challenges. This instills confidence that the H3 rocket will be ready by 2020, Dickinson said. He added that the insurance market is favorable for the H3 and that the vehicle is seen as an “important and significant step forward” to reduce costs and improve launch frequency.
H3 in development
In a separate interview, Ko Ogasawara, the vice president of MHI’s space systems division, said the development of the H3 rocket is going well. The company has fired multiple times with the LE-9 rocket engine that will power the first stage, and has also started successfully testing the solid fuel rocket boosters designed for the H3 launcher.
Next year, he said, MHI will move to phase one and second testing, with a hold-down test of the launch system in late 2019 or early 2020 at the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan.
The Japanese government has funded the H3 rocket with a goal of launching it for the first time in 2020, although a month has not yet been set, Ogasawara said. He is aware that Tokyo will host the 2020 Summer Olympics from late July to early August and that a launch around that event would capture the world’s attention. But to achieve such a goal, a lot has to go right. (Ogasawara just laughed when asked if his goal was an Olympic launch).
Ogasawara did acknowledge that Japan is entering the commercial satellite launch market at a difficult time. Not only have orders for large geostationary satellites fallen by about half, to less than 10 a year, but it also has to compete with other emerging, cost-competitive rockets. Aside from SpaceX’s existing Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, United Launch Alliance (Vulcan), Blue Origin (New Glenn), and Arianespace (Ariane 6) are all developing rockets for their 2020 or 2021 debuts that will follow the commercial market. .
“Yes, we have a lot of competitors,” said Ogasawara. “We have to compete anyway. Our market is now changing. Big satellites for geostationary orbit, the number is decreasing. At the same time, small satellite programs, such as constellations, are running all over the world. That’s good news for launchers.”
Like the recent SSO-A launch on a Falcon 9 rocket, coordinated by Spaceflight, MHI will work to develop a dispenser that can fly two or perhaps many more satellites into space at once.