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Japan's New H3 Rocket Targets Commercial Demand with Cost-Efficiency

With a revolutionary design concept based on cost-efficiency, JAXA's H3 rocket aims to bring Japan to the forefront of the growing global space industry.



H3 rocket
Artist's rendering of the H3 rocket in flight (© JAXA)

The launch of Japan's first H3 rocket is fast approaching.

Notably, the large next-generation rocket was developed with a focus on meeting the needs of private companies. This is unlike previous rockets, whose main purpose was government-led space development projects. The developer JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) sought to achieve low-cost, rapid launches by designing a flexible system — a truly customer-oriented business strategy. 

Also, the H3 rocket is a demonstration of Japan's competitiveness. It plays a crucial role in establishing Japan's position in the fast-growing space market.

H3 rocket
Artist's impression of the H3 rocket being launched from the Tanegashima Space Center (© JAXA)

A New Design Concept

The first H3 rocket is scheduled for launch on the morning of February 15 from the Tanegashima Space Center in Minamitane, Kagoshima Prefecture. The H3 is the successor to Japan's mainstay H-IIA and H-IIB rockets, but the development and design philosophy differs significantly.

Crucially, H-IIA and H-IIB have been used primarily for government-led space development. This includes the launch of national satellites and a transfer vehicle KOUNOTORI, which carries supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). But the H3 rocket is geared toward private companies.

Therefore, the developer prioritized strong marketability. The goal was to create a rocket that provides high satisfaction for the customers' various needs.›

For example, the H-IIA costs around ¥10 billion JPY ($76 million USD) for a single launch. This is more expensive than European and American rockets, which makes it less competitive in satellite launches. 

To mitigate this, the H3 has been thoroughly designed to reduce costs. JAXA emphasized using what was available in the general market instead of specially-developed rocket parts. In fact, about 90% of the electronic components were replaced with readily available ones, like automobile parts. As a result, the launch cost was halved to about ¥5 billion JPY ($38 million USD).


More Powerful and Efficient

It used to take one month to assemble the rocket, but now it only takes half a month. JAXA achieved this by enhancing production lines and using 3D printers and industrial robots. By improving efficiency, the time from receiving an order to a launch has been shortened from two years to one. 

In addition, the developer offers several configurations of the H3 rocket depending on the size and weight of the satellite to be launched. They differ in the number of engines and boosters and the size and shape of the satellite fairing. Customers can choose depending on the purpose of the launch.

Furthermore, JAXA's newly developed LE-9 main engine employs a unique highly efficient system that also uses the liquid hydrogen of the fuel to cool the engine and power the pumps. 

The LE-9 engine is 1.4 times more powerful than the engine used in the H-IIA rocket. It has fewer parts and a simpler structure, which has also contributed to lower costs. As a result, the competitiveness of the H3 is considered to be on par with that of major European and US rockets.

The Crucial First Launch of H3

JAXA'S H3 rocket project is headed by project manager Masashi Okada. He says that the team "aimed to create a rocket that was easy for private companies to use for satellite launches, with a customer-first approach."

Masashi Okada, head of the H3 rocket project (© JAXA).

The first H3 rocket bears a heavy responsibility. To win orders from foreign companies, it must demonstrate launch reliability. 

The rocket will be carrying the Japanese government's advanced optical satellite DAICHI-3. It has a high-performance optical camera capable of capturing images of Earth's land area that is three times more detailed than those by its predecessor. It will be used for a variety of purposes including disaster response and prevention, mapping, agriculture, forestry, and fisheries.

The second H3 rocket is scheduled for launch in FY2023. It will carry the government's advanced radar satellite DAICHI-4.

The goal is to build a reputation of reliability with a track record of government satellite launches. After achieving sufficient reliability through a series of successful launches, JAXA will aim for commercial satellite launch orders. 

Once JAXA starts receiving commercial orders, it aims to conduct six satellite launches annually for about 20 years.

Artist's impression of the H3's second stage (left) injecting a satellite into orbit. (© JAXA)

High Reliability and High Demand

In 2020, Morgan Stanley estimated that the global space industry could surge to over $1 trillion USD by 2040. It is believed that commercial satellite launches and utilization will account for much of this growth. 

The Japanese government has determined that it is essential for Japan to lead this huge market for the country's sustainable economic growth. In fact, it aims to double the size of Japan's space industry from the current ¥1.2 trillion JPY to ¥2.4 trillion JPY (about $18.3 billion USD) by the early 2030s. The government has further indicated its intention to fortify Japan's space industry. This is the reason for the shift in the development of Japan's flagship rockets.


JAXA's President Hiroshi Yamakawa emphasized the importance of a successful first launch at a press conference on January 27.

"H3 is a low-cost rocket with high reliability and the flexibility to meet diverse needs. In the future, Japan's space transportation systems will need to achieve independence and global competitiveness. Therefore, it is extremely important to have a successful [first] launch."

The first H3 rocket will soon be launched into space with the major mission of establishing Japan's satellite launch industry. 


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Juichiro Ito


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