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Small satellite launch demand means time pressure for SS-520 crash probe

Market demand for rockets that can deliver smaller payloads into space relatively cheaply and on a flexible schedule is growing, and it was this demand that Japan's SS-520 series of rockets was designed to meet. Which means that, following the Jan. 15 crash of the fourth rocket in the series, investigators trying to determine the cause of the mishap will be working as fast as they can.

Space launches in Japan have previously been focussed on getting large satellites designed by the government or other bodies and weighing 100 kilograms-plus into orbit. In recent years, however, organizations including universities and businesses have increasingly been looking to launch satellites in the 1-10 kilogram range, particularly observation and telecommunications satellites.

However, there are no rockets on the market designed specifically for light payloads, and many of these small satellites end up on the tips of large launch vehicles alongside bigger satellites. Another option is putting a small satellite on an unmanned International Space Station (ISS) resupply ship, like the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)'s Konotori, and having the satellite put in orbit from the station. One such satellite is scheduled for release on Jan. 16. However, both of these methods mean the satellite operator can't choose when to launch it.

JAXA's main rockets, the H-IIA and H-IIB, have pulled off 31 consecutive successful launches since February 2005, and they are well trusted internationally. In comparison, the SS-520 has had just one successful "proof-of-concept" launch. The rocket's cost has been kept down by using parts available on the open market, which will "encourage private companies" to get into space, JAXA President Naoki Okumura has said.

As such, it is very important for the SS-520's business prospects that the cause of the Sunday crash is identified and fixed, whether it be due to a communications device malfunction or some other trouble. (By Shuichi Abe, Tokyo Science and Environment News Department)

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