JAXA’s Epsilon Small-satellite Launcher Makes Successful Debut

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WASHINGTON — The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) on Sept. 14 successfully debuted a new small-satellite launcher that agency officials hope will set a new world standard for operational efficiency.

The three-stage Epsilon rocket lifted off from JAXA’s Uchinoura Space Center at 2 p.m. Japan time and deployed its payload, a satellite designed to make atmospheric observations of various planets in the solar system, just under 62 minutes later, JAXA said.   

The Hisaki satellite, previously known as the Spectroscopic Planet Observatory for Recognition of Interaction of Atmosphere, or SPRINT-A, was reported in good health after being placed into an elliptical orbit of 1,157 kilometers by 947 kilometers at an inclination of 30 degrees relative to the equator.   

“We have now completed the critical operation period for the Hisaki (SPRINT-A) after we successfully performed essential events including the planned orbit insertion, solar array paddle deployment, and sun acquisition,” JAXA said in a press release Sept. 15. “JAXA will take about two months to further confirm the status of the [satellite] such as verifying the high-precision attitude control function that is imperative for planet observations.” 

The launch of the rocket, measuring 24 meters tall and weighing nearly 100 metric tons, occurred after an Aug. 27 attempt had to be aborted just prior to liftoff due to a computer synchronization glitch.

Capable of delivering payloads weighing 1,200 kilograms to low Earth orbit or 450 kilograms to sun-synchronous orbit, Epsilon is a lower-cost follow-on to JAXA’s M-5 small satellite launcher. The new rocket, which employs solid-fueled motors from JAXA’s larger H-2A rocket as well as from the M-5, features automated checkout and support systems designed to reduce both launch processing times and the number of personnel involved.

Developed at a cost of about $205 million, Epsilon is touted as far less expensive and easier to operate than its predecessor. The first model cost about $38 million, about half the cost of the M-5, and production versions are expected to cost $30 million, JAXA said.

Yasuhiro Morita, JAXA’s Epsilon program manager, said the rocket can be launched within seven days of when its first stage is erected at the launch pad, compared with 42 days for the M-5. “This became possible by introducing an automatic and autonomous checking system and reducing hazardous operations as much as possible so that dramatic electricity and manpower savings have been achieved,” Morita said in remarks posted on JAXA’s website. 

The rocket’s launch operations can be controlled from anywhere in the world using a personal computer plugged into a network, according to a JAXA fact sheet. “This means having an ultimate launch control system which is independent of launch sites. We believe that these innovative concepts are a world first, and will be a role model for future launch vehicles,” the fact sheet states.

For future versions of the vehicle, JAXA aims to reduce on-site launch campaigns to as few as three days, Morita said. Other planned improvements include increased lift capability, to 600 kilograms to sun-synchronous orbit, and the ability for customers to access their payloads within three hours of launch. 

In his remarks, which were based on an interview that appeared Jan. 1 in JAXA’s seasonal magazine, Morita said last-minute payload access is important for satellites carrying high-performing telescopes that typically require cooling before launch.

JAXA’s lead contractor on the Epsilon rocket is solid-rocket motor manufacturer IHI Aerospace of Tokyo, which also led the M-5 effort. Other major industrial contributors include NEC Corp. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries

The second Epsilon rocket is slated to launch JAXA’s Exploration of energization and Radiation in Geospace Mission, which is based on the agency’s SPRINT small-satellite platform, as early as 2015.  

Candidate payloads for the second Epsilon launch include a radar satellite being built for Vietnam based on the Advanced Satellite with New System Architecture for Observation platform being developed by NEC. That launch is tentatively scheduled for 2015. 

The fourth Epsilon flight will be of an upgraded version of the vehicle. That mission, for which a payload has not yet been finalized, is tentatively slated for 2017, according to JAXA.

Misuzu Onuki contributed to this story from Japan.