Picture a three-stage rocket the size of a telephone pole. That’s what the Japan Exploration Agency, or JAXA, tried to launch on Saturday. The SS-520-4 rocket looked great during the first stage launch.
But, issues quickly arose as ground controllers could not receive telemetry from the before first stage separation and the ignition of the second stage. Without the constant stream of vital data, launch controllers had no choice but to abort the second stage ignition. JAXA officials tracked the small rocket as it fell into the ocean off the coast of the Uchinoura Space Center “within the projected drop area,” according to officials.
Watch the launch below. You can see right where the launch is aborted at about 50 seconds.
The SS-520-4 measures 31 feet tall and has a diameter of just 20 inches. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket towers nearly 200 feet higher with a diameter of 12 feet.
Why such a small rocket? With the rising popularity of CubeSats, public and private entities are looking for cheaper options to launch small satellites into space. If Saturday’s launch went off without a hitch, a 3-kilogram nanosat called the TRICOM-1 would have been placed in orbit around Earth.
Five small cameras tucked into the small satellite were designed to take high-quality images of Earth.
Making the final frontier cost effective
That’s the goal for many space companies, both big and small. SpaceX makes headlines by focusing on the reusability angle. While other agencies and companies think smaller.
And it wasn’t just the size of the rocket that made the SS-520-4 cheap to build. The electronic guts of the rocket were made up of parts found in today’s smartphones. As demand for placing smaller satellites into orbit increases (100kg or less), the need for low-cost launch vehicles also increases. Slapping a small satellite onto an expensive Falcon 9 launch isn’t always feasible.
The drawback to developing new rockets like the SS-520-4 is the unknown. There’s a reason why certain components are designed specifically for rockets.
Ground controllers will figure out exactly what happened over the weekend and report back to JAXA. It’ll be up to government officials to decide if the SS-520-4 is worth more time and money.
This won’t be the last time we hear about a tiny rocket trying to put a small satellite into orbit. There’s too much money to make in reaching the final frontier. Not every company can be SpaceX, but whoever can figure out launching small rockets and payloads into orbit first will carve out a nice niche in the industry.
Image credits: JAXA