The H-2A rocket set to lift off May 18 from the Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture will put a Japanese satellite into orbit and for the first time, one from South Korea.
Developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., the H-2A Launch Vehicle No. 21 will carry the Arirang-3 multipurpose satellite of the Korea Aerospace Research Institute aloft, as well as the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA) Shizuku global observation satellite.
The Shizuku is expected to observe the planet's water movements to improve the accuracy of heavy rain and typhoon forecasts, as well as help locate fertile fishing grounds.
After winning the order from KARI to carry the Arirang-3 into space, MHI officials hope a successful launch will provide the momentum for entering into the commercial launch business.
However, a successful launch will be no guarantee of increased launch business for MHI. After winning the order from KARI in 2009, the company negotiated with about 100 foreign agencies in seeking to win a second order. All of those efforts failed.
The order for the Arirang-3 was won by offering a discount rate made possible by also including other satellites, such as the Shizuku.
"We have asked South Korea to put up a certain amount, and that will reduce the burden on JAXA," said a high-ranking science ministry official. "It will also be an achievement for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries."
However, no figures were given on how much was paid by South Korea.
According to MHI officials, four launches a year are needed to enable the stable production of the H-2A and H-2B rockets. The H-2B is an improved version of the H-2A.
The launch schedule for after fiscal 2012 calls for two to three launches a year for the public sector to carry payloads for the central government and JAXA. To maintain stable production, MHI will have to win private-sector orders either in Japan or abroad to make up the difference.
However, there are only about 20 commercial satellite launches globally every year. With Europe's Ariane rocket winning orders for about half of those launches, the rest involves fierce competition among the United States, Russia and China.
While the H-2A has a success rate of 95 percent, the estimated cost of a launch is between 7 billion and 10 billion yen ($87.1 million and $124.4 million).
Rivaling MHI is SpaceX of the United States, which is providing the Falcon 9 rocket for launches that are about half the cost of an H-2A launch.
Although Mitsubishi Heavy Industries officials said efforts will be made to cut the cost of launches, the H-2A rocket is also burdened by the inability to carry the larger satellites that are increasingly being sent into space for broadcasting purposes.
For South Korea, the Arirang-3 represents an opportunity to demonstrate the high level of its satellite technology.
Although Japanese science ministry officials said South Korea was developing its satellite technology for possible business opportunities, there is also an element of national security: Having its own spy satellite in orbit would allow South Korea to gather further intelligence on North Korea.
(This article was compiled from reports by Hiroshi Ishizuka, Shiro Namekata, Seiji Tanaka and Tetsuya Hakoda.)
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