Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has recently announced plans to add a second launch pad to the existing Tanegashima spaceport in Japan. The additional pad is required to ensure the successful launch of the company’s H3 next-generation rocket. This rocket is being developed as a commercially viable alternative to the earlier generation H2A and H2B rockets. The H2A was primarily used to launch satellites into orbit, and the H2B carried cargo to and from the International Space Station. Existing infrastructure is too limited to allow for a safe and effective launch of a rocket with this type of capacity.
Another benefit of the expansion is ensuring that the country and its private space companies can remain competitive in the industry. Currently, Tanegashima’s facilities mean that Mitsubishi Heavy Industries can only plan for about four launches per year. There is also a two-month period of inactivity, as the pad needs to be refurbished after each one. Conversely, each of Arianespace, SpaceX, and United Launch Alliance launch at least eight missions per year.
Most of the contracts held by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries are government ones, as they primarily build and launch missions on behalf of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. The company was selected despite its minimal commercial presence in the market but has since proven itself to be up to the challenge. Since its first commercial flight in 2015, the company has picked up contracts from other commercial agencies including Telesat and Inmarsat. Each of these companies has relied on the H2A rocket for satellite launches.
The increased interest from other commercial organizations has inspired scientists to develop small satellite dispensers for the H3, capable of releasing anywhere from 10 to 20 full-sized satellites into orbit at once. This makes it ideal for companies and countries hoping to launch satellite constellations into orbit. Repeated launches can become quite pricey; prohibitively so in some cases. Giving companies the chance to launch an entire constellation’s worth of satellites at once can save a lot of time and money, making it easier for smaller research and development companies to get in the business.
Other improvements over the prior generation include strap-on boosters and side boosters. The side boosters are intended to make the rocket more economical for commercial agencies looking to save some money with launches, or who only need to launch a limited number of cubesats. Strap-on boosters are ideal for launching heavier satellites and equipment into orbit.
Officials have not yet announced when construction on the second launch pad is set to begin. However, they did say that construction should be complete in advance of the H3’s anticipated completion date of 2020.