According to The Asahi Shimbun, Oita Airport in Japan intends to become the first in Asia to launch a satellite into space from a plane.
The Oita prefectural government said it has signed an agreement with Virgin Orbit, a U.S. affiliate of Britain’s Virgin Group, on launching the satellite as early as 2022.
“I expect (Oita Airport) to become a hub for space transport in Asia,” astronaut Naoko Yamazaki said during an online news conference held at the prefectural government office.
Yamazaki serves as representative director of the Space Port Japan Association, which is supporting the project.
Under the plan, Cosmic Girl, a Boeing 747-400 remodeled by Virgin Orbit, will take off from the airport with a small satellite-mounted rocket called LauncherOne under its body.
The spacecraft will be separated at an altitude of 10,000 meters to enter orbit.
Virgin Orbit’s rocket can carry a payload weighing up to 500 kilograms. The company plans to use the rocket to launch small commercial satellites for communications, observation and other purposes.
Virgin Orbit asked Oita Prefecture for use of the airport, which has a 3,000-meter airstrip. The prefecture has nurtured cutting-edge technologies, including a satellite jointly developed by local businesses.
“There are start-ups developing manned spacecraft in Japan, and I hope people will be sent to space (from Oita Airport) in the future,” Yamazaki said.
While the Cosmic Girl aircraft will take off from and land at Oita Airport, a facility is planned within or around the airport complex to maintain the rocket and to load it with a satellite.
Oita Prefecture will make arrangements with the central government and other parties over legal and other issues. If all goes well, Oita Airport will become the fourth launch facility affiliated with Virgin Orbit, following two in the United States and one in Britain.
Oita Airport will also be Japan’s first air-to-orbit launch base.
The country has four vertical ground-to-space launch facilities, including the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)’s Tanegashima Space Center and Uchinoura Space Center, both in Kagoshima Prefecture.
The Taiki Aerospace Research Field in Hokkaido is used as a launch base for Interstellar Technologies Inc., which is affiliated with entrepreneur Takafumi Horie.
Space One Co. is preparing a launch at the Space Port Kii in Wakayama Prefecture.
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