The development of a spaceport in Kyushu, Japan, has been delayed due to a lack of funding following the bankruptcy filing of Virgin Orbit Holdings Inc. The Oita Prefecture teamed up with Virgin Orbit in 2020 to create Japan’s first Asian spaceport at Oita Airport using a Boeing 747 for horizontal rocket launches. However, the bankruptcy has forced the project to be postponed, leaving Japan’s attempt to enter the commercial satellite launches market in further difficulty after recent rocket launch failures.
Virgin Orbit, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, had marketed itself as a launch platform for military and intelligence satellites for the US and its allies, including Japan, at a time when China’s rise as a space power was a growing concern for both Washington and Tokyo. The Oita Prefecture hoped that the spaceport, similar to Virgin Orbit’s facility in Cornwall, England, would produce economic benefits worth around 10.2 billion yen ($77.4 million) in the region over the five years from the initial launch.
Despite the setback, locals remain hopeful that a spaceport will eventually emerge. “It is possible that some other company will buy Virgin Orbit. Also, other companies and competitors besides Virgin Orbit are considering horizontal launches, so Oita still has many options to re-enter into a contract with them,” said Kunio Ikari, an economics lecturer at Oita University. Oita Prefecture noted that its efforts to attract a spaceport remain unchanged while declining to comment on Virgin Orbit or the project’s current status.
Japan’s medium-lift H3 rocket failed in March following an aborted launch the month before, in a blow to its efforts to cut the cost of accessing space and compete against Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The Japanese space agency’s solid-fuel Epsilon rocket, which was set to carry iQPS’ small satellites, also failed after launch in October. These recent failures have caused experts to urge Japan to shift the focus of its space industry. “Japan is concentrating too much on launches,” said Jun Nagashima, an adviser at the Nakasone Peace Institute. “With SpaceX coming out with affordable rockets that can be used repeatedly, it would be better for Japan to compete in different activities and areas in space.”