Japan’s NEC Looks To Expand Commercial Market Footprint

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TOKYO — The Nov. 6 launch of the first of a new generation of low-cost Earth observation satellite platforms built by NEC Corp. for the Japanese government comes as the company looks to make further inroads in the international commercial market with a range of satellite offerings.

After a lengthy delay, the inaugural Advanced Satellite with New System Architecture for Observation, or ASNARO-1, was successfully launched aboard a Russian Dnepr rocket from that country’s Yasny launch base, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) said. The 450-kilogram satellite is primarily a demonstration platform but carries an optical sensor capable of taking images with 50-centimeter resolution.

The ASNARO program is part of a broader Japanese government bid to refocus its space program on practical applications, in this case through a low-cost but highly capable platform for optical and radar Earth observation.

Tokyo-based NEC already has sold two ASNARO-based radar satellites to Vietnam and is looking to more fully ensconce itself in the commercial market. The company’s components have been widely used in a variety of space missions, but until the Vietnam deal its business as a satellite prime contractor has been limited almost exclusively to the Japanese government market.

“Government space policy has changed to actively supporting industry and not just” research and development, said Toshiaki Ogawa, NEC executive specialist for space business. “We think now is the time to spread our market commercially.”

The company is marketing a 300-kilogram, ASNARO-based satellite platform called the NX-300L that Ogawa said will be attractive to emerging countries looking to deploy their first space assets. “The NX-300 has very high performance for a 300-kilogram bus and has very low power requirements, fast data rates, is very flexible and offers a lot of features for an affordable price,” he said, declining to elaborate.

NEC also is offering a larger Earth observation platform dubbed the NX-1500L and soon will be offering the NX-G, a relatively small platform for geostationary communications missions.

The NX-1500L, weighing 1000 to 1,500 kilograms, is based on the Global Change Observation Mission-Water satellite, also known as Shizuku, that NEC built for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and launched in May 2012 aboard an H-2A rocket.

The NX-G will be a standardized commercial version of the 2.7-ton Wideband InterNetworking Engineering Test and Demonstration Satellite, also called Kizuna, launched in 2008, Ogawa said. Kizuna features advanced Ka-band payloads and can transmit data at rates up to 1.2 gigabits per second.

As is the case with the NX-300L, NEC is targeting emerging countries with the NX-G.

“The NX-G sales point is very clear,” Ogawa said. “Although competing satellite manufacturers all offer big powerful buses in the 5-6 ton range with 10-20 kilowatts of power and some are even bigger, our focus is for 4-8 kilowatt satellites for emerging Asian or South American countries who don’t need and can’t afford such huge and powerful systems.”

Ogawa said NEC will offer satellites in package deals that include communications, ground support and, in the case of Earth observation satellites, geospatial information products and services to help customers in developing countries make full use of the systems.

NEC has 40 years of experience building space hardware and ground systems. According to Masaki Adachi, general manager of NEC’s Space Systems division, the company has supplied some 7,000 communications subsystems for more than 200 satellites.

“We have strong components sales and strong optical and communications technologies, and a design legacy. We aim to double our annual space-related revenues from about 50 billion yen now to 100 billion yen in 2020,” Ogawa said.

In June, the company opened a satellite manufacturing facility in Fuchu City, west of Tokyo, that will enable it to build and test eight satellites simultaneously, or double its previous capacity. The 9,000-square-meter facility was funded by a 9.6 billion yen ($82 million) NEC investment following a 2 billion yen subsidy from the government.

The decision to target the commercial market comes at a time when the Japanese government is aiming to increase spending on space.

NEC is a prime candidate to build a high-data-rate laser optical communications satellite that the government would use for data from its growing fleet of Information Gathering Satellites and planned maritime surveillance constellation. NEC also is the ground systems and services provider for the Quazi-Zenith regional navigation satellite system, which also is being expanded, and is integrating two geostationary X-band military communications satellites for the defense ministry.

“The Japanese government policy is now investing more in space technologies that are useful for commercialization, and now is a good time for NEC to invest,” said Masaru Uji, general manager at the Society of Japanese Aerospace Companies.