technology demonstration missions


World’s smallest orbital rocket fails on experimental launch.

A Japanese technology demonstration mission ended in failure Sunday morning after what was hoped would be the smallest orbital-class rocket to loft a payload into space.

Developed by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, the SS-520-4 rocket lifted off at 8:33am Japan Standard Time from the Uchinoura launch base in Kagoshima Prefecture. However, telemetry was lost 20 seconds into the flight. Visual clues indicated that both stages separated on time, but its theorized the second stage shutdown soon after igniting. 

Due to the size of the rocket, no telemetry equipment was installed on the vehicle’s second stage, so the condition of the rocket and its systems during ascent was unknown. JAXA reported that the vehicle fell into the Pacific ocean at the impact zone for the first stage 150 kilometers downrange. 

Diagram of the SS-520-4 rocket, courtesy JAXA.

Had launch been successful, the SS-520-4 would have been the smallest rocket currently active in the world to send a payload into orbit. The rocket measures 31 feet tall and just 1.7 feet in diameter. All three of the rocket’s stages use solid propellant. JAXA modified the SS-520 sounding rocket for orbital missions in an attempt to prove technological readiness towards launching cubesats. 

Currently, cubesats must ride as secondary payloads for larger satellites on larger vehicles.Satellites often wait years for a ride into space, and have no control over the rocket’s orbital parameters. By having a dedicated launch vehicle, operators of cubesats are able to access space quicker and cheaper.

In America, companies such as NanoRacks offer customized cubesats that are delivered to the International Space Station for deployment. Other companies such as Rocket Lab are developing their own small launch vehicles for commercial use.

The Tricom-1 satellite atop the payload adapter, seen before being encapsulated in the SS-50-1′s nosecone.