Japan’s first commercial launch explodes shortly into flight on second attempt

by Martin Smith
Concept render of Space One Kairos in orbit (Credit: Space One)

Space One had been planning Japan’s first private-sector orbital launch with the debut of its small satellite launcher — this was also to be the maiden flight from a new, dedicated, launch facility.

The maiden flight of the new launcher was initially scrubbed during two attempts on March 9 and rescheduled on March 13 at 1:01 AM JST (02:01 UTC).  The rocket did launch from the pad but then quickly experienced a rapid unscheduled disassembly several seconds later in the air, having reached an altitude of between 50 and 100 meters.

Debris from the stages fell within the spaceport grounds and to the west of the pad, leaving the pad and key infrastructure seemingly undamaged. The explosion appeared to begin at the interstage and was likely caused by the automated flight termination system, which will be clarified later when Space One completes its assessment – the launcher was expected to be heading south.

The Kii-based Advanced & Instant Rocket System (KAIROS) is a four-stage launcher with three solid-fueled stages and a fourth upper kick stage which is liquid-fueled. The rocket stands at 18 meters high, is just under 1.5 meters wide, and masses 23,000 kilograms.

KAIROS, also named after the Greek god of opportunity, is capable of lifting 250 kilograms to a low-Earth orbit at 500 kilometers, inclined 33 degrees, or carrying a 150-kilogram payload into a sun-synchronous polar orbit at 500 kilometers, inclined 97 degrees.

The vehicle is about a third of the size of Japan’s H-IIA rocket and is similar in size to Rocket Lab’s Electron. The launcher is also similar in payload capability to the initial version of Electron before it underwent a payload capacity increase in 2020.

Kairos launches on March 13 before then exploding (Credit: Space One)

Kairos launches on March 13 before then exploding (Credit: Space One)

The solid rocket motors are made by IHI Aerospace, an investor in Space One, and whose motors have been used previously on the Epsilon rocket developed by IHI and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The solid rocket motor cases are made with carbon-fiber-reinforced polymers to help reduce mass. All three initial stages have thrust vector control systems for orbital insertion accuracy.

The motors were tested in early 2022, but vehicle readiness appears to have been delayed due to supply issues and the avionics. These were originally developed by Canon Electronics, which has a sizeable stake in the company, before being outsourced. Costs and mass have been reduced through the use of consumer parts, including automotive parts, and leveraging technology derived from Canon’s developments in the mass production of components.

Spaceport Kii is a new dedicated facility in the Kii Peninsula that was built between 2019 and 2021 on a 15-hectare site that includes a pad and tower, integration facility, control center, and motor storage facilities. The spaceport is situated south of Osaka in Kushimoro, within the Wakayama Prefecture, at the southernmost point of Japan’s main island of Honshu. The location opens out to the sea, making it ideal for southward and eastward launches.

Concept render of Spaceport Kii with pad and integration building (Credit: Space One)

Concept render of Spaceport Kii with pad and integration building. (Credit: Space One)

The payload for its maiden flight will be a prototype “quick response” satellite for the Japanese government’s Cabinet Satellite Intelligence Center (CSICE), which also operates Japan’s information-gathering reconnaissance satellites. With similar responsibilities to the US National Reconnaissance Office, the CSICE collects and analyzes imagery and other data for national security and crisis management purposes.

Should an unforeseen situation occur on an information-gathering satellite, these small satellites could be quickly launched to replace the information-gathering satellite for a certain period.

Details of this payload were restricted due to a confidentiality agreement but it is anticipated to mass within 100 kilograms and with an optical resolution of less than 1 meter. The vehicle’s payload envelope has options that range from a single primary satellite to a dual launch or combinations including a cluster of cubesats.

CSICE quick response satellite (Credit: Space One)

CSICE quick response satellite. (Credit: Space One)

This specialized launch pad enables Space One to avoid working around the schedules of other rocket launches and provide a rapid turnaround. Receiving and integrating a payload can take some operators over a month but the company claims to be able to launch a satellite within four days from receipt, aspiring to deliver the world’s shortest response time between contract and launch.

Originally established in 2017 as New Generation Small Rocket Development Planning, the company changed its name to Space One a year later. This is not to be confused with Chinese company OneSpace, whose OS-M1 orbital launcher was unsuccessful on its debut and was subsequently retired. Space One intends to launch frequently, and more times than JAXA itself, building to 20 launches per year by the late end of the decade. 

This cadence is critical to reducing launch costs, which have been an obstacle to Japan’s private sector taking advantage of small satellite opportunities, and will help to develop and nurture a domestic supply chain. Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG) has also invested in the company and this strategy since 2022. MUFG also has a stake in the Japanese company Astroscale, which focuses on removing space debris.

Kairos third and upper stage concept render (Credit: Space One)

Kairos third and upper stage concept render. (Credit: Space One)

(Lead image: Artist impression of the KAIROS in flight. Credit: Space One)

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