Japanese SS-520 rocket launch scrubbed due to weather


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The launch of Japan’s new small rocket, SS-520, was scrubbed today due to bad weather.

Japanese officials announced a few minutes before the launch that the flight would be postponed due to bad weather at the space base. Authorities did not immediately set a new launch date.

The SS-520-4 will try to become the smallest rocket to ever put an object in orbit. Its sole payload is the six-pound (three-kilogram) TRICOM 1 spacecraft, a CubeSat from the University of Tokyo designed for communications and Earth observation experiments. Standing 31 feet (9.5 meters) tall and spanning around 20 inches (52 centimeters) in diameter, the SS-520-4 will blast off from a rail launch system and head east over the Pacific Ocean, dropping its lower two stages and payload enclosure into the sea in the first few minutes of the flight.

Primarily funded by a $3.5 million budget provided by the the Japanese government’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the SS-520-4 program is a one-off demonstration by Japan’s space agency, which aims to validate low-cost technology and launch operations procedures for a future “nano-launcher” to deploy tiny satellites in orbit on dedicated rides.

The last paragraph is disappointing, but not surprising considering that this rocket is entirely owned and built by the government, which like NASA, routinely builds things and then abandons them, no matter how useful they are. I hope that some private company grabs the design here and runs with it.

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9 comments

  • LocalFluff

    $3½ million for a three unit cubesat! That might be new record in expensiveness, a million dollar per kilogram. And that is an orbit with only 180 km perigee and thus short lived. 100 times more expensive than China’s Kuaizhou that just launched successfully. Rebuilding sounding rockets to orbital launchers cannot be an optimal market winner.

  • LocalFluff: I think you should rethink your math. The price for the Kuaizhou rocket is what they are charging, per kilogram. We have no idea what it cost to develop the rocket. The $3.5 million for the SS-520 (which includes the payload) is the development cost, but no good business anywhere in the universe would charge their first customer the entire development cost.

    In fact, $3.5 million to develop this rocket seems quite reasonable to me, especially with the wave of smallsats being built in the thousands that will all need launch services. If their price per launch is reasonable, they will quickly get that money back, and more.

  • LocalFluff

    It was a one off, to it did cost a million per kilogram to (a short lived) orbit. I think a normal sounding rocket launch costs about a million each, at least in Japan. Way more than a factor of ten more than Kuaizhou (as charged or real cost, who knows, probably the Chinese “planned” internal pricing is way off real costs). One would have to do it Microlauncher style to have a chance with a dedicated rocket for a cubesat payload.

    An alternative to a dedicated small launcher is to launch more mass as secondary payload with a big launcher, and use that extra mass for propulsion to get into the desired orbit. ULA does offer propulsion in its Rideshare program for Atlas V. Traditionally, no launch provider allows a secondary payload carry anything as dangerous as its own chemical rocket engine. There’s really tough competition for this segment, and when the optimistic vision is lowered costs, i.e. lowered revenues, it is not a very attractive investment opportunity.

    I am impressed that this rocket, in its normal sounding rocket version, reaches as much as 800 km altitude! I didn’t know that sounding rockets got that high, before their payload falls back to Earth. That should give plenty of time to point a telescope and get a long exposure. Maybe the big orbital launchers could work as large sounding rockets with recoverable payloads? If they can put 20 tons in orbit they should be able to launch several times that straight up. A telescope could be specially designed to make only one observation of a special object, for example the super massive black hole in the Milky Way’s center, or of an interesting exoplanet when it is known to transit.

  • Alex

    @LocalFluff: There are sounding rockets which go up to 2000 km and more. For example DLR ‘s Maxus rocket.
    3.5 millions developments cost for SS-520 are very reasonable (new third stage, new version of guidance and control system, …), but launch costs shall be for an 3 kg satellite maximum about 200,000 dollar in total for normal user, which is a very difficult taks to achieve. Consider alone range and ensurance cost. I am sure, DOD would also pay a million dollar to inject such a small satellite for a specific fast response mission.

  • Edward

    LocalFluff wrote: “It was a one off, to it did cost a million per kilogram to (a short lived) orbit.

    The article notes: “the SS-520-4 program is a one-off demonstration by Japan’s space agency, which aims to validate low-cost technology and launch operations procedures for a future ‘nano-launcher’ to deploy tiny satellites in orbit on dedicated rides. … the research and development project aims to demonstrate a relatively inexpensive launch concept using commercially-available technology.”

    Since it is a demonstration program, its intention was not to launch even a single satellite. I suspect that the presence of the satellite has distracted us from the purpose of the exercise, which is to validate technologies and procedures, not launch satellites, and that if there had been no payload there would be no complaint about the cost. That they have a customer to defray costs is nice.

    If a Japanese company (or any nation’s company, for that matter) uses the development for an inexpensive cubesat launcher, then the program is worth the development costs.

    Right now, most cubesats are launched as piggyback rides on big rockets, and they do not get to choose their orbit. This means that, as they are launched now, too many cubesats become space junk when they come to the ends of their lives. It is a good thing to have a small, inexpensive rocket that can put cubesats into specified orbits that will decay soon after their missions are complete.

  • Alex

    @Edward: There is intention to launch satellites in this project. It is seems to me that this launch is part of a (or at least a residual of an) overwhole development micro-launcher programm, which has faced the development a family of microlauncher, all based on SS-520 sounding rocket, wich are able to inject 3-20 kg payload into orbit. NL-520 was projected to orbit 20 kg for example.

    http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1320&context=smallsat

  • LocalFluff

    @Edward
    ULA does offer propulsion for secondary payload, so that they can get into any orbit they please. Look at their Rideshare program for Atlas V, it is smorgosboard for all kinds of satellite sizes. I think that SpaceX and Airbus (and less likely the Russians) will follow.

    I haven’t heard anything about old US ICBM’s being re-purposed for civilian launches. The Russians did the same in the 1990s. This is another tough competitor for dedicated small sat launchers. I wouldn’t invest in that business expecting any profit.

  • Alex

    @LocalFluff: A real nano-launcher (in order to launch a few pounds to orbit) have to rely on very different technologies as common chemical rocket based launcher, because negative scaling effects and costs, which does not scale very good with rocket size, as launch infrastructure, mission planning and so forth. Otherwise, mass specific launch arises to the extreme.

  • Edward

    Alex wrote: “There is intention to launch satellites in this project.”

    Not according to the article. The article states clearly that the intention is to demonstrate the technology and procedures “for a future ‘nano-launcher’ to deploy tiny satellites in orbit on dedicated rides.” This is why the intention is for this to be a one-off launch.

    LocalFluff wrote: “ULA does offer propulsion for secondary payload, so that they can get into any orbit they please.”

    I think that a little investigation will show that the cost of the propulsion for secondary payloads is greater than the university students taking this flight can afford. I suspect it costs more than the $3.5 million that is complained about.

    Getting into any desired orbit from some arbitrary orbit can be difficult. Not only might the secondary payload have to raise or lower its orbit — the relatively easy part — but it may have to change orbital planes — the difficult part.

    The engineers who plan missions and orbits need to know how much propellant will be needed to change an orbit, when necessary, but since different satellites are different masses, and since mass drops out of the orbit equation, the engineers use the change in velocity (delta V) to determine the amount and direction of the propulsive thrust needed to change the orbit.

    To change orbital inclination, the delta V is related to twice the sine of the change in orbital angle. In the case of the students in the article, to change from an equatorial GEO orbit to a 31 degree inclination requires a change in speed of 2*sin(31deg)*V (were V is the initial velocity at the time of the orbit-change burn). Doing the math, the change in velocity for a 30 degree inclination change is equal to the initial velocity. For a LEO orbit, that is about 8 km/s, and that’s a lot of propulsion.

    If you want a specific orbit, it is sometimes or often best to launch directly to that orbit, not to piggyback on a different launch.

    This is one of the reasons why small satellites are so eager to get their own launchers and to stop — to paraphrase Blanch DuBois — depending on the kindness of larger satellite operators.

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