Momo-3, the first private Japanese rocket to reach outer space

Momo-3 is the first private Japanese rocket to reach outer space. The Momo-3 rocket, an unmanned, 10-metre, one-ton sounding rocket, of the Japanese start-up Interstellar Technologies, has successfully taken off on May 4, 2019, and flown to outer space. Interstellar Technologies became the first private Japanese company to reach outer space. So far (and probably still for a little while), all major space missions were led by the JAXA, the Japanese space agency.

This was the third launch attempt by Interstellar Technologies. A 2017 launch resulted in operators losing contact with the rocket after launch, though the rocket was estimated to have achieved a total height of around twenty kilometres. Another in 2018 resulted in a massive fireball when the rocket left the pad, then within seconds fell back down and exploded.

The third attempt was the good one for the Momo-3 rocket of the Japanese start-up Interstellar Technologies, in the business of private launches (aiming at launching small information satellites and to reduce the cost of access to outer space). About one thousand people gathered to watch the lift-off in Hokkaido, Japan.

Momo-3, the first private Japanese rocket to reach outer space

In the summer of 2017, the attempt to launch the Momo-1 rocket failed due to a communication problem with the telemetry data that necessitated the engine emergency stop. Again in the summer of 2018 with the explosion of the Momo-2 rocket only four seconds after take-off due to a problem with the main engine.

For the third attempt, on May 4, 2019 from a launch site at Taiki, a town located in Tokachi Subprefecture, Hokkaido, Japan, the Momo-3 rocket, 50-centimetres in diameter, successfully took off and flew for over eight minutes before returning to the Pacific Ocean. It has reached a maximum altitude of more than one hundred and then kilometres, beyond the border between the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. “We have proved that our rocket developed with many commercially available parts is able to reach outer space”.

Saturday’s attempt was originally scheduled for last week, but a “glitch in the fuel system” forced a delay. Saturday’s originally planned launch was also delayed by forty-five minutes after the detection of an “anomaly”. However, when it did launch everything worked as intended, with the Momo-3 rocket burning its liquid fuel for the scheduled two minutes and flying for ten minutes before it fell into the Pacific Ocean. The rocket reportedly carried a 20-kilograme payload that was not delivered to space, but instead carried testing equipment. “We’ll work to achieve stable launches and mass-produce (rockets) in quick cycles”.

Interstellar Technologies

Interstellar Technologies, Inc. is a Japanese New Space company. It is a rocket spacelaunch company developing the Momo launcher. Its stated goal is to reduce the cost of access to space. The company plans to complete a rocket by 2020 that would be capable of launching small satellites into orbit.

Interstellar Technologies was founded in 2013 by a group of investors, and employs a staff of twenty. The Momo sounding rocket has been successfully tested in 2017 and 2018, but this is the first time that the vehicle has reached outer space. The Momo sounding rocket is made entirely of off-the-shelf components and reportedly cost less than one million dollars to build, but is too small for commercial operations.

It’s a special relief from the founder of the private Japanese company Interstellar Technologies, Takafumi Horie, a Japanese entrepreneur who founded Livedoor, a website design operation that grew into a popular internet portal. Horie’s plans for Interstellar are relatively modest and he has no plans to compete with aerospace giants like SpaceX or Blue Origin, instead focusing on small, cheap rockets that cost under a million dollars. However, its primary competitor Rocket Lab has more resources to expend and achieved a successful space launch in 2009 (and first launched a satellite in January 2018), while other companies like China’s OneSpace are making considerable progress.

Interstellar’s launch is also a step towards a new era in which private companies, historically overshadowed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), take a bigger role in the nation’s space efforts. Interstellar plans to develop another rocket, a larger Zero model that can deliver microsatellites into orbit, but it will require tens of millions of dollars in development costs.

Space Legal Issues

Let’s recall that, according to Article VI of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (entered into force on 10 October 1967), “States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty. The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty. When activities are carried on in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, by an international organization, responsibility for compliance with this Treaty shall be borne both by the international organization and by the States Parties to the Treaty participating in such organization”.

Let’s also recall that Article VII states that “Each State Party to the Treaty that launches or procures the launching of an object into outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and each State Party from whose territory or facility an object is launched, is internationally liable for damage to another State Party to the Treaty or to its natural or juridical persons by such object or its component parts on the Earth, in air space or in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies”.

As a result, Japan bears international responsibility for activities in outer space carried on by the private company Interstellar Technologies, Inc., and Japan is internationally liable for damage to another State Party to the Treaty or to its natural or juridical persons by Momo-3 or its component parts on the Earth, in air space or in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies.

Finally, let’s mention that Article VIII of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty enounces that “A State Party to the Treaty on whose registry an object launched into outer space is carried shall retain jurisdiction and control over such object, and over any personnel thereof, while in outer space or on a celestial body. Ownership of objects launched into outer space, including objects landed or constructed on a celestial body, and of their component parts, is not affected by their presence in outer space or on a celestial body or by their return to the Earth. Such objects or component parts found beyond the limits of the State Party to the Treaty on whose registry they are carried shall be returned to that State Party, which shall, upon request, furnish identifying data prior to their return”. If Momo-3 (or its component parts) is found in the Pacific Ocean, Japan and Interstellar Technologies, Inc. shall retain jurisdiction and control over the space object.