By Soji Saito
A jumbo jet carrying a rocket takes off from Oita Airport and launches a satellite from midair — a project to realize such a vision may begin as early as 2022.
U.S. Virgin Orbit, a subsidiary of Virgin Group, is planning the project. Virgin Orbit is developing its information infrastructure in order begin a satellite launch service using aircraft by the end of 2020. On May 25, 2020 (U.S. time), Virgin Orbit conducted a test launch off the coast of California. The company was successful in igniting the engine of its LauncherOne launch rocket in midair.
The effect of the new coronavirus outbreak is worrying. Virgin Orbit Senior Director Monica Jan, who is in charge of launches from Japan, says that the company is doing its best to minimize the outbreak’s effect on the development schedule. She states that “there is no change in the plan to start launches from Oita Airport in 2022.”
Virgin Orbit has so far selected four airports in the U.S. and Europe, such as Mojave Air and Space Port in California and U.K. Cornwall Airport Newquay, to be space ports for its rocket launches. Oita Airport is expected to be Asia’s first space port. With the implementation of the project, Oita will be Japan’s fifth location for rocket launches. Other locations are the Tanegashima Space Center (Kagoshima) and Taiki town (Hokkaido).
Virgin Orbit first approached Oita Prefecture about plans for a space port at the end of June 2019. Multiple regional airports in Japan were reportedly candidate locations at that point. In September 2019, Virgin Orbit technicians visited Japan and reviewed the surroundings and facilities of each airport. As a result, Oita Airport was selected. Oita’s infrastructure and suitability must have been reasons for its selection. There are, however, other regional airports with a 3,000-meter runways which are close to the ocean with ample land in the vicinity. It seems there was another deciding factor.
Although Virgin Orbit has not issued a statement on the matter, Oita’s attractive tourist resources may be what Oita Airport has that others lack. Virgin Orbit’s customers are those companies and national agencies that wish to launch small satellites. Since customers are invited to space ports at launch, it would be to Virgin Orbit’s advantage if there are attractive tourist spots nearby. The famous hot springs of Beppu and Yufuin are close to Oita Airport. Many Asian tourists visited Oita prior to the new coronavirus outbreak. An Oita Prefecture official says that there seems to have been the idea that “Oita is also suitable for marketing purposes.”
If Oita Airport becomes a space port, it will be easier for Virgin Orbit to respond to requests for small satellite launches in Japan as well as in other Asian countries. The selection of Oita will enable Virgin Orbit to launch satellites at a location closer to customers without transporting satellites to the U.S. or U.K. It will be a benefit for Japanese space companies to have more launch bases in Japan.
Oita Prefecture and Kunisaki City both welcome the selection of Oita Airport as a space port. Oita Prefecture in particular was positive about a space port, because it hopes that a space port will lead to “an expansion in the space business.”
It is still unknown whether opening a space port will benefit local industries. So far there has only been discussion of a facility to assemble a rocket. From Oita Airport’s point of view, the project will result in just one extra jumbo jet takeoff and landing. There has been no talk of local companies receiving orders or being approached by Virgin Orbit. (Abridged)
The original article was first published on Nikkei XTech (crosstech) on June 17, 2020.