HELSINKI — Japan’s space agency has selected startup Interstellar Technologies as a priority launch provider as part of a program to advance the commercialization of space. 

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and Interstellar signed a basic agreement in March. Space One, whose Kairos solid rocket exploded seconds after liftoff earlier this month, was also selected under the JAXA-SMASH (JAXA-Small Satellite Rush Program) initiative.

Two further companies also signed basic agreements. These are Space BD and Mitsui Bussan Aerospace, which offer services aimed at the commercial utilization of space.

The agreements mean the companies will have priority for future contracts. These are designed to support private-sector entities capable of launching satellites developed under JAXA’s small satellite missions and advance the commercialization of space transportation services. 

The agreements have been made in accordance with JAXA-SMASH. These are aimed at promoting the entry and commercialization of small and medium-sized enterprises and start-up companies and expanding transportation and small satellite missions.

Japan is targeting a domestic launch capacity of approximately 30 institutional rockets and private rockets per year by the early 2030s. 

This drive is part of a wider multibillion-dollar space strategic fund to develop the country’s innovation, autonomy and international competitiveness. Space-related objectives include maintaining independence in space capabilities, strengthening technological superiority, and increasing supply chain autonomy. It is also part of wider economic measures to overcome deflation. 

Interstellar is targeting 2025 for the first launch of its orbital ZERO rocket. The 32-meter-long, 2.3-meter-diameter rocket uses liquid biomethane fuel and liquid oxygen oxidizer. Its first stage is powered by nine engines, with a single second stage engine. It is designed to eventually be capable of lifting 800 kilograms of payload to low Earth orbit. Alternatively it will be able to carry 250 kg to sun-synchronous orbit.

“Space technology’s complexity and the limited opportunities for challenges have hindered the expansion of space utilization and industrial growth. JAXA-SMASH presents an innovative opportunity for demonstrating cutting-edge technology with satellites to break through these limitations,”  Takahiro Inagawa, CEO of Interstellar, said in a statement

“We are honored to be part of it, bringing our space transport services to the table. Looking ahead, we anticipate a substantial increase in space transport opportunities domestically. However, we’re all hands on deck, pushing ahead with technology demonstration and business development, ready to seize the day in this new era.”

Interstellar says it aims to provide launches at less than 800 million yen ($5.2 million). It lists its advantages as including integrated development and manufacturing process. This would work out at $6,500 per kilogram of payload to LEO at 800 kg of payload.

The company’s Momo suborbital rocket has launched seven times, suffering four failures. The last two flights, in July 2021, were successful.

Similar moves to boost commercial space launch being undertaken in Japan can be seen in other countries.

In January the European Space Agency and European Commission selected five launch companies for a new program to provide flight opportunities for new technologies.

Beijing last month announced a commercial space action plan, following a similar move by Shanghai in November last year. China’s central government identified the commercial space industry as one of several strategic emerging industries to nurture late last year.

India is also aiming to effect a surge in civil and commercial launches. This target is underpinned in part by a new national space policy unveiled in 2023. The measures aim to make India a global space hub.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. Andrew has previously lived in China and reported from major space conferences there. Based in Helsinki, Finland, he has written for National Geographic, New Scientist, Smithsonian Magazine, Sky...