[Courtesy of Peter J. Brown, originally published at Japanese in Space.]

JASDF C-130. Wikipedia photo.

Small satellites are growing in popularity for many reasons. As a result, the search is on for more flexible and cost-effective small satellite launch solutions.

Amongst all the researchers and small satellite enthusiasts at the recent 25th Annual AIAA/Utah State University Conference on Small Satellites, the only team that made a presentation focusing on commercial launch-related activities represented the Japanese Government’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) – funded project known as the Air Launch System Enabling Technology R&D (ALSET) program.

ALSET was initiated in 2009 to determine the viability of various airborne launch technologies. There is considerable emphasis on overall flexibility and responsiveness. In addition to launch vehicle loading and deployment, for example, attitude stabilization at the time of ignition in the air, and technologies relevant to the drop sequence need to be verified.

Fixed-wing aircraft – military and civilian – already have a successful track record in this role thanks to Orbital Sciences in the U.S., for example, and its Pegasus subsonic launch platform. In the mid-1980′s, U.S. F-15′s fired anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles that could conceivably be adapted to launch mini-, nano- and pico-satellites into space. This fighter aircraft-based approach is now emerging under programs known as GO Launcher and Trimaran, among others. One can assume that Israel and Russia in particular also possess this capability today.

If everything goes according to plan, the work undertaken by the ALSET team will help ensure that small payloads – 100 kg to 200 kg – will be launched someday using a multi-stage solid rocket mated to an existing aircraft.

One of the slides presented by the ALSET team during the conference in Utah clearly stated that, “the drop test will be conducted in the US in CY 2013.” The Yuma Proving Ground and Edwards Air Force Base were named as two potential test sites in the U.S.

Another slide showed a plane which bore a strong resemblance to a C-17. Several other planes have also been evaluated for ALSET. Takayoshi Fuji who has worked on ALSET since it started and now serves as Director of the brand new Small Launch System Group at Japan’s Institute for Unmanned Space Experiment Free Flyer (USEF) stated that, “the C-130 is one of the candidates, and this has not been decided yet.”

Japan’s new Kawasaki C-2X cargo plane did not appear on any of the ALSET slides in Utah.

Takayoshi emphasized that ALSET is, “a basic technology development project, and an actual launch test is not planned.”

Besides USEF, the ALSET team includes IHI Aerospace Co., Ltd. CSP Japan, Inc. and SpaceWorks Commercial which is based in Washington,

“The purpose of the ALSET project is not to develop the air launching system itself, rather to develop the effective basic technology for a commercial satellite launch business in the future,” said Takayoshi.

ALSET is much more than a broad-based conceptual study. It includes assessments and validations of operations, GPS ranging and satellite-based telemetry, tracking, and control as well as new avionics packages. Legal, regulatory, and safety issues are also addressed.

“Like many other space projects in Japan, the ALSET project is facing a considerable challenge as far as attracting adequate funding given the current situation in Japan,” said Takayoshi. “We are continuing all the necessary work, although the government’s budget profile over the coming years will likely be kept tight due to the magnitude of the destruction resulting from the Tohoku Region Pacific Coast Earthquake.”

USEF and IHI Aerospace were participants in a project known as “NanoLauncher” too which SpaceWorks Commercial created. This focused on evaluating the feasibility of using decommissioned military fighter aircraft to launch very small satellites akin to the U.S. F-15 launch tests mentioned above.

“(The NanoLauncher project) was an exploratory study done last year dealing with a nanosatellite air-launch system. We were looking at potential Japanese solid rocket stages for part of the system as part of that exploratory study,” said A.C. Charania, president of SpaceWorks Commercial. “Now, SpaceWorks Commercial has recently formed a new company called Generation Orbit Launch Services, Inc. (GO) that will be attempting to develop this concept further under the system name of GO Launcher. We are currently in design phase and will be slowly releasing information over the next few months.”

Charania did not want to reveal too many details at this point, but he did say that the results of the NanoLauncher study are helping to shape the GO Launcher system. Otherwise, the term NanoLauncher is simply no longer in use.

“USEF, being a quasi non-commercial entity, would probably not be involved directly in GO. GO is a U.S. commercial project. ALSET, being a government of Japan project, does involve USEF,” said Charania. “Our current plan, subject to approvals, would be to have some sort of collaboration between GO and IHI Aerospace with potential solid rocket stages for the GO Launcher system provided by IHI Aerospace as a vendor.”

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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 596 post(s) on Japan Security Watch