Editorial: Launches Unlimited

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The new deal between Japan’s government and fishing unions that will permit launches to occur year-round from the Tanegashima Space Center starting next year is a welcome — if long overdue — development that will help the country fulfill its growing space ambitions while enhancing its ability to contribute to international programs.

Currently, launches from Tanegashima Island in southern Japan are limited to two primary windows spanning a combined 190 days per year. The restrictions stem from concerns among the powerful fishing unions that launch activity will disrupt their livelihood during peak season. Waters near the spaceport must be kept clear of boats before, during and immediately after launches; if a launch gets repeatedly postponed over a period of several days due to minor technical glitches or inclement weather, it could mean a substantial loss of income for fishermen.

Similar constraints apply to Japan’s Uchinoura Space Center, which today is used for sounding rocket launches. These, too, will officially go away April 11 under the new agreement, announced by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) July 29.

The restrictions at Tanegashima have long been viewed as a barrier to Japan’s entry into the commercial launch market. Time being money, commercial satellite operators want to be able to launch their satellites as soon as they’re ready, and Japan’s workhorse H-2A vehicle, because of the restrictions, simply cannot offer that kind of flexibility.

Japan’s commercial launch ambitions were cited by JAXA as a rationale for removing the restrictions, but it remains to be seen whether the H-2A will be cost competitive with established commercial rockets like the Russian Proton and European Ariane 5. Moreover, demand for commercial launches is expected to drop within the next few years as the big satellite operators wind down their fleet recapitalization programs, even as new vehicles like Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s Falcon 9 enter the market.

But even setting aside what looks to be a tough commercial market in the years ahead, Japan had compelling reasons to do away with the restrictions. As JAXA noted, Japan’s year-old Basic Plan for Space Policy called for a review of the constraints given the fact that launch ranges are “important infrastructure that ensures Japan’s independent access to space.” Generally speaking, the Basic Plan recommends that the government increase its annual space spending and emphasizes a broader national security role for satellites.

Japan conducts a relatively small number of launches per year — nowhere near the 17-launch limit, which will remain in place under the new deal — but the issue with the restrictions has always been flexibility rather than volume. A delay occurring near the end of a window, for example, could be prolonged for months. For planetary missions in particular, this is no trivial matter; a missed window could result in years of delay.

But should the volume of Japanese space activity increase significantly in the future — the Basic Plan also called for increased use of satellites for scientific research — so would the likelihood of bottlenecks at Tanegashima had the restrictions remained in place. Only so many space launch missions can be squeezed into 190 days.

The coming change is good news for Japan’s partners on international projects, including the international space station. With NASA’s space shuttle retiring next year, the space station partners will be entirely dependent on unmanned capsules to deliver cargo to the facility. Among these capsules is Japan’s H-2 Transfer Vehicle (HTV), which made its debut in 2009 and is expected to launch at a rate of one to two times per year. Coordinating dockings at the station by several different cargo capsules — there are at least five in operation or development — is complicated enough without having to deal with constraints that prevented HTV launches for nearly half of each year.

These current and potential issues should all go away by next year, and not a moment too soon. Japan will face its share of challenges as it seeks to expand what already is one of the world’s pre-eminent space programs; thanks to the deal with the fishing unions, being handcuffed at its own launch facilities will no longer be among them.