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Japan Tries (and Fails) to Launch a Tiny Rocket

Sending teensy satellites into space isn’t just an experiment in cute—it’s an effort to reduce the cost of sending tech into space

Awwwww. (JAXA)
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Japan’s SS-520-4 rocket was, in a word, adorable. The size of a telephone pole, it was tiny compared to its gigantic competition. And the rocket was supposed to launch an equally petite satellite into orbit Sunday to prove the small-but-mighty rocket’s viability. But the rocket’s first flight ended in disaster: As Sarah Lewin and Tariq Malik report for Space.com, it’s now in the sea along with its payload.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, is blaming communications problems for the rocket’s demise. The rocket apparently stopped sending data about 20 seconds into the launch, and Lewin and Malik report that three minutes after launch, the mission was aborted and the craft consigned to the sea. In a release, JAXA notes that it fell to Earth within its projected drop area.

It’s a blow to an agency that had hoped its tiny rocket could usher in big change. Not only was the rocket tiny—a mere 20 inches wide—but its payload, a TRICOM 1 CubeSat, was, too. TRICOM 1 weighed 6.6 pounds and was packed with several cameras and communications equipment. Officials hoped that despite their small sizes, the rocket and satellite could prove that it was possible to launch satellites one at a time instead of in a batch. Current satellite launches carry satellites by the dozens, but such a large payload comes at a price. A lighter rocket could bring down the cost of sending up communications satellites and make it easier for private companies to get their tech in space.

Communications satellites have a history of relying on the big guns as opposed to lightweight technology. Rocket were originally developed to carry inter-continental ballistic missiles. Their modern-day counterparts are hefty indeed. The SpaceX Falcon 9, which launched ten communications satellites on January 14 in the first successful mission since another rocket exploded in September, weighs in at over 1.2 million pounds (most of it propellant) at launch. In contrast, JAXA’s SS-520-4 weighed less than 6,000 pounds. It cost a fraction of the money spent on a traditional satellite launch, too: the project had a $3.5 million budget.

The rocket’s launch was delayed earlier this month due to weather. As Spaceflight Now’s Stephen Clark reports, it would have been the lightest, smallest vehicle ever to get an object into orbit if it had succeeded. The fact that it didn’t is a blow to JAXA, which has endured several failed missions over the past few years. At least one, during which a satellite fell to pieces just a month after launch, has been blamed on human error.

Lewin and Malik note that other companies are trying to develop similarly small rockets—and given how important satellites are to everything from communication to scientific discovery, it’s unlikely the hunt for a tiny rocket that can take small satellites up to space will end any time soon. SS-520-4 may have gone up in smoke, but it's probably not the last of its teensy, tiny kind.

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