Japan got its first commercial order to launch a satellite on a homegrown rocket on Monday, a deal that Japanese officials hope will grow into a business that could support the country's cash-strapped space program.
The agreement — which targets a liftoff date after April 2011 — comes less than two weeks before Japan plans to launch eight satellites into space to show that its H2A rocket can compete with rivals in Russia, the United States and Asia's new space powerhouse, China.
Japan's space program has long been focused entirely on lifting government-sponsored, unmanned payloads — mainly scientific, telecommunications and spy satellites, which it first launched 10 years ago — off the launch pad.
But officials are hoping that commercial use would help fund Japan's long-term space development, which Tokyo believes is an essential part of national security.
The primary mission of the Jan. 21 launch from remote Tanegashima island, where Japan's main space station is based, is to send into orbit a greenhouse-gas monitoring satellite called "Ibuki," which means "breath." But along with the main payload, the rocket will carry seven "baby satellites" — one developed by JAXA, the government space agency, and six created by university research centers and private industry.
JAXA decided to open the payload up to the private sector because it had extra launching power and wanted to display its capabilities for commercial use.
"If we can successfully launch the seven mini satellites, this could be an excellent precedent for commercial use in the future," said Asaka Hagiwara, spokeswoman for JAXA, whose official name is Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.
In a promising sign, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., which makes the H2A rocket, signed an agreement Monday with the Korea Aerospace Research Institute to launch its multipurpose Arirang 3 satellite. It was the first commercial order for use of a Japanese-made rocket. The price was not disclosed.
The H2A rocket was initially designed and built as a government project in which Mitsubishi Heavy took part. The rocket project has since been privatized as a business of Mitsubishi Heavy, now considered a vital part of Japan's space program.
Japan has long been one of the world's leading space-faring nations — having launched its first satellite in 1970 — but it has been struggling to get out from under China's shadow in recent years and gain a niche in the global rocket-launching business, which is dominated by Russia, the U.S. and Europe's Arianespace.
Becoming a commercial space power would help Japan keep apace of an intensifying space race in Asia.
Struggling under a relatively small budget — $2 billion in 2008 — Japan has watched rival China march ahead with high-profile manned flights and is now seeing a growing rival in India, which has set its sights on reaching the moon.
China has already built up lucrative commercial satellite launching services. It launched a communications satellite for Nigeria in 2007 and another for Venezuela last year.
Japan is keenly aware that its space program has crucial implications for national security.
Lance Gatling, an independent space and defense expert, said that while commercial success would be a nice outcome, Japan believes it needs to keep its rocket program in good shape for defensive reasons.
"They want to be able to launch a satellite and not tell anybody where it's going. There are many reasons to do that," he said, referring to North Korea and other regional concerns. "If it was a commercial business, it would have been shut down years ago."
Underscoring the military realities, Japan's parliament last year voted to allow the nation's space programs to be used for defense for the first time. The law, one of several recent moves to give greater freedom to the armed forces, allows the military to develop advanced spy satellites for intelligence and a missile defense shield being built jointly with the United States.
Japan's current spy satellite program is run by a civilian agency.
JAXA official Takao Eto, who is in charge of coordinating the piggybacks, said the agency has already selected four other piggybacks for a launch in 2011. They will be launched for free, but JAXA is considering charging a launch fee in the future.
Takeshi Maemura, head of space systems for Mitsubishi Heavy, said Japan's launch cost has come down to a competitive level. He said the standard for a competitive launch — largely set by Russia's Proton rocket — used to be around $75 million, but has now risen to around $97 million.
JAXA says this month's launch will cost about $91.7 million — the lowest ever.
"The cost has reached a level where we can be quite competitive," Maemura said. He said Mitsubishi Heavy has received dozens of offers for satellite launches. "Our launch cost is getting pretty close."
According to the space agency's Web site, Ibuki will monitor the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and is "expected to play an important role in monitoring global environmental changes." The piggyback satellites have missions that vary from measuring gamma radiation to monitoring lightning. The total project cost is estimated at $372.8 million.
JAXA spokesman Tatsuo Oshima said it is counting on orders from the military.
"With the new law that allows space programs for defense purposes, we expect there will be more opportunities for development and launches of various kinds of satellites," he said.
But Mitsubishi's Maemura acknowledged Japan needs to launch rockets far more frequently than the one or two a year it launches now. The Tanegashima launch site, about 600 miles 970 kilometers southwest of Tokyo, lacks the capability to handle so many launches because of weather, size and arrangements with local fishermen that prohibit launches during peak fishing seasons.