Japanese University Startup Takes a Slice of the Space Industry Pie

Japanese University Startup Takes a Slice of the Space Industry Pie

Touhoku University, with the co-development of Yoshida-Danbara Laboratory, has finally decided to venture into the private space industry with a new startup company.

Elevation Space, as it is named, is set to kickstart new development projects into what the company considers as the “post-ISS era.”

Touhoku University’s Small Scale Big Plan

The International Space Station (ISS) is currently the world’s biggest representation of international cooperation when it comes to space development to date. But more importantly, it has also been the one and only center for many of the later vital scientific discoveries and technological developments in relation to humans in space.

Elevation Space is meant to follow up on these accomplishments by creating a similar, albeit much smaller platform, for conducting various procedures in space. According to its official mission profile, its primary operation will be the launch and deployment of ELS-R satellites.

For example, a small protein crystallization instrument may be installed in the satellite, in order to create the perfect microgravity environment for such a manufacturing function.

In addition, the ELS-R units are also designed to be fully recoverable, allowing for the systematic retrieval of processed materials from the satellites.

To facilitate this, it has an entirely independent recovery system, much like how SpaceX retrieves its payload fairings using small ships. Though, instead of simply sending a smaller capsule back to Earth, the diagrams and basic explanations suggest that the entire satellite will reenter the planet instead.

This brings into question as to whether the ELS-R will also be reusable, though due to the significantly more sensitive materials, it is likely that it won’t be. At the very least, its first iterations would probably simply serve as early samples to more accurately survey each unit’s performance.

ISS Experiments After the ISS

Peculiarly, most of the marketing campaign for Elevation Space focuses directly on the ISS. As explained, such focus is due to the fact that the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is one of the central members of the ISS development team.

More specifically, Touhoku University has been one of the most important affiliates of JAXA during many of its scientific missions. As the member guaranteed support for the aging space station is set to end in 2024, the backup plan was to create a brand new platform to continue the work that was already set in motion by the ISS.

As for Yoshida-Danbara Laboratory, the establishment is closely associated with Touhoku University, and holds an impressive portfolio of designing and building over ten operational satellites. It is hoped that this prerequisite accomplishment would be useful in the development and future implementation of the ELS-R small satellites.

Frequency is the Key

Another important aspect of the ELS-R that is heavily marketed is its target launch frequency. Nowadays, space launches have become far more regular thanks to private entities such as SpaceX and Rocket Lab, or even government-based ones like the ISRO. In Japan, however, government-funded space projects with scientific objectives are still yet to become as regular. By using the ELS-R platform, it is hoped that local launches would significantly increase in frequency.

First, cost. Due to the smaller scale operations, Elevation Space can work with significantly smaller budgets than what JAXA typically allocates. Next is time. Particularly time required to complete safety checks. Because the experiments are unmanned, no human safety checking procedures are required. Thus the time from building to launch becomes notably shorter.

In general, Elevation Space expects that one ELS-R launch may be possible within each month. This is within the ballpark of how often other private space companies usually launch, though still being extended by a week or two in between. For reference, SpaceX is currently launching its Falcon rockets every 14 to 16 days, while the ISRO is launching a little bit more than one each month.

Into the Bigger World of the Private Space Industry

As mentioned earlier, most of the experiments to be conducted on the ELS-R platforms would largely resemble those currently being conducted aboard the ISS. Beyond scientific applications, however, the ELS-R can also serve as a tiny manufacturing or production site, and even function as an entertainment-focused telecommunications server.

Specific use-cases are divided into these major categories:

  • Protein crystallization
  • Biological tests
  • Space instrument/tool testing
  • Bioprinting
  • Semiconductor manufacture
  • Special alloy production
  • Advertising
  • General Science education

It may be obvious already from the profile of the ELS-R, but It is important to make the distinction that Elevation Space isn’t a launch company. Unlike something like the United Launch Alliance (ULA), which could both design satellites and launch them, a separate company would provide the vehicles that will be used to launch the units.

That being said, Elevation Space still stands at a pretty unique position within the industry. For one thing, most satellite companies either focus on imaging, or on telecommunications technologies. The size of the satellites, while described as small-scale (in line with other telecommunication satellite companies), it certainly is far from being cubesat territory. As such, it would probably not compete within the nano-scale space industry either.

If we are to assume that extended support for the ISS would indeed end in 2024, this would mean that Elevation Space might be the very first private entity that could offer (more or less) the same scientific experimentation options as the long-standing orbital station.

Incidentally, 2024 also marks the same year of SpaceX’s initial plans for its first manned martian flight (using Starship). The same year is also when NASA hopes to go back to the moon with Artemis as well. Should we witness any of these come to fruition within an allowance of one or two years between, Elevation Space’s eventual implementation could drastically change even further.

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