Japan aborts launch of flagship H3 rocket moments before lift off

The secondary booster engines strapped to its side fails to ignite

By Reuters

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An H3 rocket sits on the launch pad next to billowing white smoke at Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima, southern Japan, on Friday. — AP
An H3 rocket sits on the launch pad next to billowing white smoke at Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima, southern Japan, on Friday. — AP

Published: Fri 17 Feb 2023, 3:57 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Mar 2023, 12:29 PM

Japan on Friday aborted the launch of its first new medium-lift rocket in three decades moments before the H3 vehicle was meant to lift off after secondary booster engines strapped to its side failed to ignite.

During the live-streamed event, the H3's main engine cut off after the launch countdown had reached zero, leaving the 57-metre (187 ft) rocket on the ground at the Tanegashima spaceport along with its payload, the ALOS-3 land observation satellite, which is also equipped with an infrared sensor designed to detect North Korean ballistic missiles.

"A lot of people have been following our progress and we are really sorry," the H3 project manager at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Masashi Okada, told a media briefing as he wiped away tears.

"It is really galling," he said.

JAXA would aim for a second attempt before the end of March, Okada said.

Japan built the H3 to enhance its independent access to space and bolster its chances of capturing a bigger share of the global launch market from rivals, including Elon Musk's SpaceX.

It is designed to put government and commercial satellites into orbit and ferry supplies to the International Space Station.

As part of Japan's deepening cooperation with the United States in space, later variants will also carry cargo to the Gateway lunar space station that Nasa plans to build as part of its programme to return people to the moon.

The United States has promised Japan a seat on one of its crewed lunar missions.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the H3's builder and launch manager, hopes the rocket will boost its space ambitions as SpaceX shakes up commercial launches with its reusable rockets, including the Falcon 9.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies in a September report put the cost of a Falcon 9 launch to low earth orbit at $2,600 per kilogram. The equivalent price for H3's predecessor, the H-II, is $10,500.

"With the H3 we are aiming to halve the cost per launch," a Mitsubishi Heavy spokesperson said before the planned launch.

A successful first mission would have put the Japanese rocket into space ahead of the planned launch this year of the European Space Agency's new lower-cost Ariane vehicle.

The failed launch deals a setback for a burgeoning renaissance in space exploration and industry for Japan.

In December, Japan's iSpace successfully launched a craft that aims to be the world's first commercial lunar lander, while billionaire Yusaku Maezawa revealed his crew for what would be the first civilian flyby of the moon.

But both projects are dependent on SpaceX rockets, and with Russian rockets no longer available, the pressure is on for Japan to develop its own delivery system to achieve its space goals.

Space exploration and defence were a core theme of talks between Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and US President Joe Biden in Washington last month.

Chief Cabinet Secretary said the government did not believe the failed launch would impact space policy and the H3 remained key for "strengthening Japan's autonomy and international cooperation in space activities".


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