Last week, the Japanese successfully launched a new rocket, the H-II, from the space centre on the southern island of Tanega-shima. After a decade of development and an investment of almost dollars 2.5bn, the H-II is intended to reduce Japan's reliance on foreign launch vehicles and to gain a foothold in the competitive market for launching satellites. Although its engineers have had problems in developing a high-powered liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen engine, they have succeeded in creating a much lighter, and therefore more efficient, rocket than Europe's mainstay, the Ariane- 4, although its performance is almost comparable to Ariane's.
Competition among rocket manufacturers is hotting up in the scramble for contracts to launch large satellites. Next month, China is expected to launch a more powerful version of its Long March rocket.
It is tempting to suggest that the dominance of Paris-based Arianespace might be under threat. But Arianespace has an enviable reputation. Its share of the commercial launch cake has been well over half in recent years, and the company's order books are full until 1996.
Furthermore, Ariane rockets have been among the most reliable in an industry which expects a launch to end in a fireball once in a while. Until the 24 January failure, there had only been five Ariane flops in 14 years of operations, a success rate of around 92 per cent. This is considerably higher than all of its rivals can claim, apart from the US Delta rocket which is a much smaller, less powerful competitor. An even larger version, the Ariane 5, is scheduled for its maiden flight in 1996.
And yet . . . Despite this apparently impregnable position, Arianespace officials are concerned about their long-term position. Their main worry is the four-sided threat from the United States, Russia, China and Japan. Since the number of large satellites in the launch queue is expected to diminish towards the end of the decade, there is a distinct possibility that Arianespace will have to settle for a smaller portion of a shrinking cake.
On the other side of the Atlantic, there are some signs that Ariane's well-established American rivals are beginning to get their act together. US rockets such as the Atlas and Titan have had an embarrassing tendency to blow up. They are based on the ballistic missile technology of the Fifties and Sixties, and their critics argue that they are too unreliable and expensive to compete in an open market. The only success story has been the McDonnell Douglas Delta, but this relatively small vehicle is usually used for US government payloads rather than commercial satellites.
Now Martin Marietta (builder of the Titan) has agreed to pay dollars 208m for General Dynamics Space Systems (builder of the Atlas). Officials believe that the emergence of one strong launch company will put them in a better position to survive a shrinking defence market and increased foreign competition.
Charles Bigot, director-general of Arianespace, remains confident that the American threat is still far from reality. He told the trade journal Aviation Week & Space Technology: 'Since there has been no strong willingness in the US to develop a next-generation vehicle, we don't see a new American competitor emerging in the Ariane class for at least 10 years. Therefore, the new competition during this period could be from Russia, China and Japan.'
Every year since the late Sixties, more rockets have blasted off from the former Soviet Union than any other country in the world. However, the vast assembly lines which churn out Russian rockets have always been excluded from the capitalist launch market. This was mainly achieved by slapping a ban on the export to eastern Europe of satellites that contained US technology.
Now, as part of President Clinton's open door policy, the Western nations have agreed to allow up to eight 'principal' payloads to be sent aloft by Russian vehicles up to the end of the year 2000. The first of these will take place next year, following a dollars 36m deal with the London-based international maritime organisation Inmarsat.
Perhaps the greatest uncertainty lies in the potential of the Far Eastern space powers. So far, the Chinese Long March boosters have not been able to make much of an impact on the commercial market, despite their low launch costs. Their cause was not helped when their most recent commercial launch ended with the loss of an Australian satellite. However, there are ambitious plans to extend the fleet, beginning with the launch of a new variant, the Long March 3A, early next month.
Despite its technological advances, no one expects Japan's H-11 to sweep all rivals before it. Not a single commercial contract has yet been signed, and only six flights are scheduled up to 1997. As Yoshikazu Shoji of the Japanese space agency, Nasda, admits: 'The launch costs are very high compared to Ariane 4 - roughly double. However, these should go down if it flies more often.' Perhaps a run of successes will also encourage Western companies to risk their payloads on the newcomer.