IHI Corporation has developed a fuel-efficient engine for a Mars probe. IHI plans to deliver the engine in fiscal 2023 for a project led by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). Mars exploration missions take about five years from launch to return. The IHI engine has made such long flights possible with just a small amount of fuel. The advancement of technology to support long flights could expand the reach of space exploration.
IHI will provide the engine for MMX (Martian Moon eXploration), a project by JAXA and the Japanese government to launch a Mars probe in fiscal 2024. Aerojet Rocketdyne in the U.S. and the ArianeGroup in Europe lead the world in the field of satellite engines. This is the first time for IHI to provide an engine for a Mars project.
An engine that can withstand long flights is essential for exploring Mars, which is 100 times more distant than the Moon. IHI used its own technology to make improvements so that the engine is more fuel efficient than comparable U.S. and European engines.
The MMX project is aimed at collecting and bringing back samples from the surface of one of Mars’ moons as part of Mars research. A delicate control mechanism is necessary for the probe to enter and exit Mars’ orbit or launch and land the probe on a Mars moon. IHI has experience in building engines for the Kounotori unmanned cargo vessel that docks to the International Space Station (ISS), and can adapt the control mechanisms to Mars probe specifications.
Many countries have their own Mars probe projects. The U.S. successfully launched a probe in July 2020, followed by China and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). India and the European Union (EU) also are moving forward with projects. SpaceX, a U.S. startup engaged in a project to inhabit Mars, is accelerating its development of a large spacecraft.
By participating in Mars probes, newly emerging nations such as the UAE plan to make space exploration a pillar of their industrial development second to that of energy. As a result, the opportunities for Japanese companies to enter the field are increasing. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries launched a UAE probe in July 2020. Teijin supplied a U.S. Mars probe with a landing parachute made with a textile that is eight times stronger than iron. IHI plans to use MMX as a foothold to participate in other space projects.