MHI H3 Configurations
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) wants to launch twice as often with the H3, and at half the price per kilogram of the current H2-A. Credit: MHI

WASHINGTON — Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the prime contractor for Japan’s next-generation launch vehicle, the H3, says it is on schedule for a first launch in 2020, and will soon learn if the cost-cutting efforts pursued over the past three years will meet the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s goal of halving launch prices compared to the H-2A.

Ko Ogasawara, MHI’s vice president and general manager for launch, told SpaceNews the critical design review, or CDR, for the H3 is scheduled for this autumn and will give an indication of how effective the company has been at reducing costs.

“The government said to cut the cost per kilogram in half, so after getting such a requirement, we are working very hard to find solutions,” said Ogasawara. “By CDR we will find our target costs. So far it is going well, but it is very tough.”

JAXA awarded MHI a contract to build the new launcher in 2014, and included in the rocket’s procurement a requirement that the price per kilogram drop by 50 percent. The H3 is intended to replace Japan’s workhorse H-2A rocket, used for satellite launches, and the H-2B, used mainly for resupply missions to the International Space Station. JAXA and MHI are also seeking to double the average number of annual launches, from three to four with the H-2A and H-2B today to around eight with the H3.

“So far our schedule is still the same,” said Ogasawara. “After the CDR we will start manufacturing of qualification test articles, including those for the first stage BFT, Battleship Firing Test [a ground test firing of engines]. This test is to be conducted using a flight-like propulsion system, engine support structure and LE-9 engines.”

Ogasawara said the biggest difference between the H-2A and the H3 is in the first stage engine. H3 will use the LE-9 engine, which is derived from the H-2A’s second stage engine, the LE-5B. Ogasawara described the LE-9 as “much simpler and more reliable” than the LE-7A engine used for the H-2A, because the number of components is “drastically reduced.”

MHI produced the first LE-9 engine in March, he said, and hot-firing tests began this spring.

JAXA has given MHI a greater level of influence on the H3 than it did with the H-2A. Ogasawara said whereas the total launch vehicle design for the H-2A was JAXA’s responsibility, MHI’s role as prime contractor and vehicle integrator gives the company more creative freedom. He stressed, however, that JAXA is still directly involved in the design and development for certain key components.

“Therefore, we work together, JAXA and MHI, very closely,” he said.

Ogasawara said one example of a major change between the H-2A and the H3 is swapping gimballed nozzles on the solid rocket boosters in favor of fixed nozzles.

“Why did we decide to eliminate such a function? In the case of H3, we have two or three  first-stage engines, therefore such engines are able to do the same function, especially for vehicle roll control. This is one example. Not only for the system design side, but for the manufacturing and the operational phases, we are trying to find how to decrease the cost,” he explained.

The H3 is designed to use three LE-9 engines when configured without strap-on solid rocket boosters, and two LE-9 engines when configured with them. The rocket is designed to launch with zero, two or four strap-on boosters, allowing it to deliver between two and seven metric tons to geostationary transfer orbit. IHI Aerospace, manufacturer of Japan’s Epsilon small launcher, is MHI’s supplier for the strap-on boosters for the H-2A and future H3. Kawasaki Heavy Industries provides the payload fairings.

Japan’s demand for domestic government launches has climbed over the past 10 years thanks largely to new programs such as the nation’s Information Gathering Satellites, X-band defense communications satellites, and the Quasi-Zenith Satellite System navigation satellites. The H3’s increased launch cadence, though, is geared principally toward the commercial sector.

Ogasawara said the MHI is seeking three to four commercial missions per year with the H3, and has already begun expanding its rocket and engine assembly facilities in Nagoya, Japan, to accommodate the increased number of launches. Furthermore, he said MHI is already having “long term project planning” discussions with satellite operators about using the H3.

MHI performed its first commercial satellite launch, Telstar 12 Vantage for Telesat, in November 2015 using the H-2A rocket. Two more commercial missions, the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre’s Khalifasat and the Emirates Mars Mission, are slated for 2018 and 2020, respectively. Ogasawara said MHI has a commercial H-2A launch slot in 2019, and possibly another in 2020. He said MHI will likely retire the H-2B in 2019 and the H-2A in 2023, giving the H3 about three years of overlap.

Caleb Henry is a former SpaceNews staff writer covering satellites, telecom and launch. He previously worked for Via Satellite and NewSpace Global.He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science along with a minor in astronomy from...