Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What Is In Fact An ICBM

Update @13:52 - National broadcaster NHK is reporting that the Epsilon launch has been scrubbed for today.

There is always tomorrow--or even later. After the huge media buildup of the past week over the launch, however, today's cancellation represents a huge embarrassment for the space agency.

The official press release on the non-event can be found here.

Update @13:48 - The clock has run down to zero but the Epsilon rocket is still sitting on the pad. No explanation for what is going on, since what was supposed to happen has not happened. The rocket sits, immobile and silent.


In a few minutes' time, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will be attempting to launch the first of its new Epsilon rockets. JAXA will be using this Epsilon launch to boost a 350 kg SPRINT-A ultraviolet band observatory (Link) in to Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

The Epsilon-1 is a new generation of low-cost, high frequency launch vehicles capable of carrying 1200kg satellite into space, or a 700 kg satellite if a liquid-fueled propulsion unit is required for final orbital positioning (Link). The new rocket is designed to make Japan a niche player in the international commercial launch vehicles market. Japan's current heavy lifting offerings are simply too expensive to be competitive with other launch vehicles built in lower-cost countries and launched from sites closer to the Earth's equator.

Or at least that is the narrative that the mainstream, "let's go Team Japan" media has been feeding us.

The problem with this narrative? There is likely no market, not even a niche market, for the Epsilon's services.

Here is the table from the June 2013 report of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation on the market for satellite launches through the year 2022:

Click on image to open in a larger window

See that last line in the Launches table? For NGSO Small, i.e. Non-Geosynchronous Orbit Small, launches? The projections are for 2 launches in 2013, one in 2016 and then a big line of fat line of zero launches until the end of the time frame.

Three launches over 10 years.

What makes this doubly sad is that this projection is less than half of the number of small-scale launches estimated only last year.

While the FAA is projecting the lofting of dozens of satellites of less than 1,200 kilograms over the next few years, all of these can be accommodated as add-ons to satellite launches for larger satellites. What would be left for the current programs (Japan, Europe and China, for now) in the NGSO-Small class is the tiny, if it even exists, market for time-sensitive launches. (Link - see page 73)

The only real role for the Epsilon and its competitors in the commercial sphere is the role of space ambulance -- an emergencies-only vehicle, sitting in its assembly building most of the time, waiting for the call to launch within hours of receiving a precious payload.

OK. Let us cut the crap, shall we?

The Epsilon is a solid fueled rocket. It can sit on the ground, ready to launch basically on command -- no need for time-consuming gassing up.

The Epsilon's payload is too small for commercial satellites, even in LEO and definitely nothing of any size for GSO.

The Epsilon has one active competitor in the European Space Agency's Vega rocket. It will soon have a Chinese competitor. The South Koreans and America's SpaceX group are also in the running.

For a market that is too small to support even a single program.

So you tell me what the heck I should think the Epsilon is, really.

At best, it is an enormous waste of time, money and talent -- a make work project keeping Japan's space engineers from leaving the archipelago.

At worst, it is a signal.


Philippe said...

Eh, I was thinking ICBM when I first heard about this launch a couple of days ago.

PS - your 'Link - see table and text on page 73' link goes to the wrong place.

Anonymous said...

The Chinese have long regarded Epsilon as a covert ICBM program (or, perhaps more relevantly in this context, a 'CBM'..). There can be little doubt that it is.

Of course, the Chinese can hardly begrudge the Japanese an ICBM or two, given that have hundreds, including both submarine and land-based versions.

MTC said...

Philippe -

Thank you for pointing out the broken link.