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Big Rockets, Small Rockets: The Age of Space Startups is Here






The three-booster rocket blasted off, carrying CEO Elon Musk’s bright red sports car into space. On February 6, the American space transport startup SpaceX successfully launched the prototype heavy-lift rocket Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket on earth.


At the post-launch interview, Musk said that the startup’s success should “encourage other companies and countries.” SpaceX, for one, is also developing new rockets for manned flight.





Three days before that, on February 3, the the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched the SS520 No. 5, the smallest satellite-delivering rocket ever, from the Uchinoura Space Center in the town of Kimotsuki, Kagoshima Prefecture.  


It managed to send the three-kilogram nanosatellite TRICOM-1R, developed by Tokyo University, into orbit as planned, and TRICOM-1R will be taking photos of Earth and relaying back the information.


Its success comes after the failure of TRICOM-1R No.4 last January due to malfunction. The project is run by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, and the objective is to realize low-cost transport of nanosatellites using small rockets. The number of expensive, specialized parts have been reduced, while commercially available parts used for home appliances and cellphones have been incorporated.





The cost of the launch is about 500 million yen, less than US$5 million, and JAXA hopes to expand its space business by making this technology available to private companies. The SS-520 was developed as a two-stage, solid-propellant rocket designed for upper atmosphere observation. The SS-520 No. 5 is the updated model, a three-stage, 9.5-meter rocket that made the satellite launch possible.



Production Costs


These two events herald the dawn of a new space age, a time where nanosatellites can be launched easily, and at low cost. And this unprecedented diversification of rocket may give birth to a variety of new businesses.



Produce a palm-sized satellite weighing only one kilogram with a budget of 500,000 yen, then launch it and put it into orbit within a 1–10-million-yen budget. Warpspace, Inc., a startup company launched at the University of Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture, took on this wild feat, which endeavors to use nanosatellites that can be launched on a budget starting at one million yen to open-up outer space for major companies, research institutes, small- and medium-sized enterprises, and individuals.



Warpspace was founded in June 2016 by CEO Toshihiro Kameda, 49, an associate professor at the University of Tsukuba. Kameda and students from the university are developing satellites for Project Yui, which has become the cornerstone of the company. The project, started in 2011, has seen numerous successes, including the launch of the nanosatellite in December 2016. Kameda harnessed the techniques and experience he gained from the project to establish the company.


‘Play with Space’



The efficacy of Warspace’s cost-reduction strategy lies in its connections with the university. The university lets the company use the school facilities to test the satellites’ readiness for the harsh environments of space, in exchange for the experiment’s data. The use of commercially available parts has also contributed to lower costs. Its terrestrial antenna has a simple structure, designed so that amateur radio enthusiasts can also catch signals from the satellite.


Satellite missions have always been a solemn matter, especially when funded by the government or universities. CEO Kameda is hopeful that the focus on budget reductions might also allow an element of “playfulness” to enter the project. Indeed, technological innovation and discoveries are often found in the process of play.




For example, how about owning a personal space telescope? Since it’s always sunny above the clouds, a satellite in orbit with observation instruments would mean you could observe space at all hours of the day.



Satellite data can even be used for education. Signals from nanosatellites can be caught by antennas constructed by amateurs, such as radio clubs in schools. Satellite data can be used in classrooms and research if antennas are set up on school roofs.


CEO Kameda wants his company to listen ideas like this from many people and offer new ways of using space. The possibilities for space applications are infinite.



(Click here, here, and here to read the original articles in Japanese.)