TOKYO — The Japanese government has officially approved initial funding for a $1.9 billion effort to develop the H-3 rocket, the designated replacement for the country’s current H-2A workhorse launcher.

The decision to provide $70 million in 2014 for H-3 development was taken Dec. 24 by the Cabinet Office of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Japan’s parliament, or Diet, is expected to formally approve the decision in March.

Tentatively scheduled for a first launch in 2020, the two-stage H-3 will be powered by a combination of liquid- and solid-fueled motors and be capable of placing up to 6.5 metric tons of payload into geostationary transfer orbit. The target cost per launch is $50 million to $70 million.

The H-3 was initially approved by the Cabinet Office’s Space Transportation System Division Committee in May 2013. The vehicle is intended primarily for launching government payloads but also is expected to make Japanese industry competitive in the international commercial launch market, according to Hiroshi Yamakawa, a member of the Cabinet Office’s National Space Policy Committee.

The H-3 development program will include the vehicle itself plus associated ground and flight-safety systems, Yamakawa said in response to SpaceNews questions. Previously the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) had lead responsibility for all three elements, but now will focus on key technologies such as the engines as well as overall system integration, he said.

The industry team developing the H-3 will be led by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries of Tokyo. The team is expected to be finalized by May, Yamakawa said.

The H-3 will stand about 60 meters tall and have a core stage powered by a new liquid-hydrogen/liquid oxygen main engine dubbed LE-X and anywhere from two to six solid-fueled strap-on boosters. The solid-fueled boosters will be based closely on the second stage of Japan’s new Epsilon small rocket, which successfully debuted in September. 

Although the H-2A has proved to be a reliable workhorse, its cost — about $100 million — kept it largely on the sidelines of the commercial market, notwithstanding Mitsubishi’s recent contract to launch a satellite for commercial operator Telesat in 2015. Garnering commercial launch business is a key element of Japan’s strategy for keeping its space industry robust and competitive.

Yamakawa said annual funding for the H-3 development program will be determined based on performance milestones.

To reduce per-launch costs, the H-3 will incorporate innovations developed for the Epsilon program, including an automated vehicle health checkout and inspection systems and horizontal assembly.