Wednesday, September 18, 2013Mitsubishi Heavy Eyes Commercialization Of Rocket Tech
TOKYO -- Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. is also eyeing commercialization of low-cost rocket launches in line with the nation's official strategy.
It took a giant leap in its bid to become a profitable space company on Aug. 4 when it launched one of its H-IIB rockets for the first time after it took over full control of launch services from Japan's space agency, at the Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture.
The No. 4 H-IIB rocket carried into space the Konotori cargo transporter, which brought food and supplies to the International Space Station.Ceding authority
For the launch of the first three H-IIB rockets, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) gave the final go-ahead after analyzing weather and other conditions. This was the first launch in which JAXA handed over all decision-making authority to Mitsubishi Heavy.
The company had previously been given the reins to launch the less powerful H-IIA rocket, and the Aug. 4 H-IIB launch marked another step in the privatization of Japan's space program.
The H-IIA and H-IIB are capable of putting satellites weighing up to 6 and 8 metric tons, respectively, into geostationary orbit.
With JAXA ceding its authority to Mitsubishi Heavy, the leading Japanese heavy machinery maker will be able to seek orders for launching domestic and foreign-made satellites of various sizes.
"We hope to market our services in Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere," said Yoichi Kujirai, executive vice president and head of aerospace systems at Mitsubishi Heavy.
The depreciation of the yen, coupled with JAXA's decision, has created "business opportunities for us at last," a Mitsubishi Heavy marketing official said.Uncompetitive
The H-IIA and H-IIB face tough competition from overseas. The U.S. and Russia have launched more than 300 rockets between them; Japan has launched just over 20.
Mitsubishi does not disclose earnings from its rocket launch business, only that it is "not in the red," according to an official, suggesting that the business is not highly profitable for the company.
"Business is tough, but we hope to accumulate successful results," Executive Vice President Tatsuhiko Nojima said.
The rocket is "overlooked on the commercial market because of its high launch cost," said a JAXA official.
The H-IIA has secured only one launch order from abroad. The cost of each launch is estimated at nearly 10 billion yen ($100 million) for the H-IIA and 15 billion yen for the H-IIB, much higher than the global average of around 7 billion yen. Although the two rockets have high success rates, they do not compete with rivals on price.
According to Mitsubishi Heavy, it needs to carry out four launches a year to support its H-II rocket production technology. But only three launches are planned for this business year.
The government recently decided to begin a project in fiscal 2014 to develop an internationally competitive rocket, tentatively called the H-III. The successor to the H-IIA is expected to cost less while continuing to be as reliable. The project will involve JAXA, Mitsubishi Heavy, IHI Corp. and others.Going private, cheaper
The high cost of the H-IIA program is the result of a government policy that regarded space as a testing ground for advanced technologies. The H-III project will seek to halve the cost of launches to encourage more commercial endeavors.
In past projects, the government decided on basic designs and then farmed out the development of rockets to private companies. The H-III program will take into account opinions and input from Mitsubishi Heavy and other companies from its initial stage.
The H-III project, with its slogan of "a rocket incorporating private-sector power," will consider the capabilities of solid-fueled rockets, and study new approaches to fuel efficiency and other cost-saving techniques. Foreign companies may also be asked to participate in the development of the engines and some other core components.
Mitsubishi Heavy on Aug. 4 launches an H-IIB rocket after taking full control from JAXA at the Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture. (Kyodo)
Yoichi Kujirai, executive vice president and head of aerospace systems at Mitsubishi Heavy, speaks to the press after the successful launch of an H-IIB rocket on Aug. 4.
An H-III rocket rests on a launch pad in this conceptual image provided by JAXA.