Japan's Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) made history on Saturday, February 3, by using the smallest rocket ever to launch a satellite into orbit. The agency modified an SS-520 sounding rocket with an extra third stage in the nose cone to give the micro-satellite, a 3-kg (6.6-lb) TRICOM-1R, its final boost into orbit.
The launch seems to have gone off without a hitch. JAXA lists the satellite's status as being in the "nominal" or observation phase, according to the Verge.
JAXA has no plans at this juncture to complete regular flights with its smallest rocket, yet there is a trend in the spaceflight industry that is leading to an uptick in interest for such launches. New Zealand's Rocket Lab has been working on developing a smaller rocket to fill the gap in the need for smaller-scale trips into space.
SpaceX is clearly the industry leader in terms of satellite launches and International Space Station resupply missions, yet institutions looking to launch smaller satellites are exploring cheaper alternatives to buying a spot on a massive SpaceX launch. Rocket Lab and JAXA are among the first to show much progress in this sector.
JAXA's achievement will stand in stark contrast to SpaceX's next milestone, the eagerly awaited launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket. This massive launch will stand at the opposite end of the spectrum as the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two. SpaceX has been issued an official launch license for a February 6 takeoff.
The future of space travel has room enough for the entire spectrum of launch technology, from the mini-rocket all of the way up to the Falcon Heavy-scale goliaths. Space is a virtually untapped resource holding an abundance of knowledge and utility for those willing to reach out and grab it.