Japan got its first commercial order to launch a satellite on a homegrown rocket on Tuesday, a deal that Japanese officials hope will grow into a business that could support the country's cash-strapped space program.
The agreement which targets a liftoff date after April 2011 comes less than two weeks before Japan plans to launch eight satellites into space to show that its H2A rocket can compete with rivals in Russia, the United States and Asia's new space powerhouse, China.
Japan's space program has long been focused entirely on lifting government-sponsored, unmanned payloads mainly scientific, telecommunications and spy satellites, which it first launched 10 years ago off the launch pad.
But officials are hoping that commercial use would help fund Japan's long-term space development, which Tokyo believes is an essential part of national security.
The primary mission of the Jan 21 launch from remote Tanegashima island, where Japan's main space station is based, is to send into orbit a greenhouse-gas monitoring satellite called "Ibuki," which means "breath." But along with the main payload, the rocket will carry seven "baby satellites" one developed by JAXA, the government space agency, and six created by university research centres and private industry.
Becoming a commercial space power would help Japan keep apace of an intensifying space race in Asia.
Struggling under a relatively small budget 188 billion yen ($2 billion) in 2008, Japan has watched rival China march ahead with high-profile manned flights and is now seeing a growing rival in India, which has set its sights on reaching the moon.