Japan’s new rocket fails after engine problem, a blow to space ambitions

  • Destruction signal sent to the rocket after 14 minutes of flight
  • Japan’s space agency still hopes to field a competitive rocket
  • A rocket will eventually supply the future American lunar space station

TOKYO, March 7 (Reuters) – Japan’s new medium-lift rocket failed on its maiden spaceflight on Tuesday after the launcher’s second-stage engine failed to fire as expected, hampering its efforts to reduce the cost of access to space and compete with Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

The 57-metre (187-foot) tall H3 rocket, Japan’s first new design in three decades, lifted off without a hitch from Tanegashima spaceport, a live broadcast from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) showed. .

But upon reaching space, the rocket’s second-stage engine failed to fire, forcing mission officials to manually destroy the vehicle 14 minutes into the flight.

“It was decided that the rocket could not complete its mission, so the kill command was sent,” JAXA said in a statement.

The failed attempt follows an aborted launch last month, and the debris is believed to have fallen into the ocean east of the Philippines, JAXA said.

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Science and Technology Minister Keiko Nagaoka said in a statement that the government had set up a task force to investigate the “very regrettable” failure.

“It will have a serious impact on Japan’s future space policy, space activities and technological competitiveness,” said Hirotaka Watanabe, a professor at Osaka University who specializes in space policy.


The H3 carried the ALOS-3, an earth observation satellite for disaster management, which was also equipped with an experimental infrared sensor designed to detect North Korean ballistic missile launches.

“The H3 is extremely important to secure our access to space and to secure our competitiveness,” JAXA President Hiroshi Yamakawa told reporters. JAXA’s goal of fielding a competitive launcher has not changed, he added.

H3 builder Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd (MHI) (7011.T) said it was confirming the situation surrounding the rocket with JAXA and had no immediate comment.

MHI has estimated that the H3’s cost per launch will be half that of its predecessor, the H-II, helping it win business in a global launch market increasingly dominated by SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 rocket. .

A company spokesperson said earlier that it also relied on the reliability of Japan’s previous rockets to win business.

In a report published in September, the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated the cost of a Falcon 9 launch to low Earth orbit at $2,600 per kilogram. The equivalent price for the H-II is $10,500.

A successful launch on Tuesday would have put the Japanese rocket into space ahead of the planned launch later this year of the European Space Agency’s new lower-cost Ariane 6 vehicle.

Powered by a new, simpler and less expensive engine that includes 3D-printed parts, the H3 is designed to lift government and commercial satellites into Earth orbit and will ferry supplies to the International Space Station.

As part of Japan’s deepening cooperation with the United States in space, it will also eventually ferry cargo to the lunar Gateway space station that US space agency NASA plans to build as part of its program for returning people to the Moon, including Japanese astronauts.

Shares of MHI closed down 0.37%, while the broader Japanese benchmark (.N225) rose 0.25%.

Reporting by Tim Kelly, Maki Shiraki and Rocky Swift; Additional reporting by Satoshi Sugiyama in Tokyo and Joey Roulette in Washington; Editing by Christopher Cushing and Jamie Freed

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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