Japan's Space One's ambitious 'Kairos' rocket mission ends in explosion

Japan's Space One has ambitions of becoming a key player in the commercial launch service sector, offering low-cost and rapid launch solutions
The image shows Kairos rocket exploding. — X/@CollingRug
The image shows Kairos rocket exploding. — X/@CollingRug

Space One, a Japanese private venture aiming to make its mark in the space industry, faced a significant setback with the failure of its inaugural rocket launch on Wednesday. 

The Kairos rocket, an 18-meter, 23-tonne vehicle, met with an unfortunate explosion shortly after takeoff, thwarting its mission to deliver a 100-kilogram intelligence satellite into orbit approximately 500 kilometres above Earth.

The incident unfolded live, with the rocket initially lifting off amidst a cloud of white smoke, only to erupt in flames about five seconds later. This resulted in fiery debris scattering across the nearby mountains, igniting a fire that had to be subsequently contained.

Space One, which operates the launch site and was established in 2018, has ambitions of becoming a key player in the commercial launch service sector, offering low-cost and rapid launch solutions. The company plans to achieve a target of 20 launches annually, boasting the shortest lead times between order and launch worldwide.

The failed mission carried a satellite intended to bolster the Japanese government's capabilities in quickly deploying small satellites, especially in cases where existing spy satellites encounter issues. Space One's Kairos rocket, with its three solid-fuel stages and an additional liquid fuel "kick stage", was designed to place payloads into sun-synchronous or low Earth orbits with high precision.

Canon Electronics and IHI, the two major shareholders of Space One, have contributed significantly to the company's development. Canon Electronics brought expertise in lowering production costs and ramping up mass production capabilities, while IHI provided insights into rocket development and integration.

The global market for launch services is currently dominated by U.S. companies like SpaceX and Rocket Lab, but Space One is undeterred in its pursuit to carve out a niche in the expanding commercial space sector. 

Unlike most major rockets that use liquid fuel, Space One, along with several Chinese state-owned and commercial companies, has opted for solid-fuel rockets, a choice also reflected in China's Orientspace's Gravity-1, iSpace's Hyperbola-1, and CAS Space's Lijian-1.

The launch site, situated on a mountainous peninsula in Kushimoto, was specifically designed for commercial use. Despite the setback, local support remains strong, with Kushimoto Mayor Katsumasa Tashima expressing continued backing for the project, emphasising its importance for the town's development.

In Japan, major launch sites like the Tanegashima Space Center and Uchinoura Space Center are primarily dedicated to JAXA's missions and lack the capacity for commercial launches, highlighting the significance of Space One's initiative in the Japanese space sector.