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

  • Destruction signal sent to the rocket 14 minutes into flight
  • Japan’s space agency says it still hopes to field competing rockets
  • Rocket to eventually supply the planned US lunar space station

TOKYO, March 7 (Reuters) – Japan’s new medium-lift rocket failed on its maiden flight into space on Tuesday after the launcher’s second-stage engine failed to ignite as planned, in a blow to its efforts to cut the cost of accessing space and compete against Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

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

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

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

The failed attempt followed an aborted launch last month, and the debris would have fallen into the sea 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.

“This will have a serious impact on Japan’s future space policy, space business and technological competitiveness,” said Hirotaka Watanabe, an Osaka University professor with expertise in space policy.


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

“H3 is extremely important to ensure our access to space and to ensure we are competitive,” JAXA President Hiroshi Yamakawa told reporters. JAXA’s goal of fielding a competitive launch vehicle remained unchanged, he added.

H3 builder Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd ( MHI ) ( 7011.T ) said it was confirming the situation surrounding the rocket with JAXA and did not have an 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 previously said it also relied on the reliability of Japan’s previous rockets to get business.

In a report published in September, the Center for Strategic and International Studies put the cost of a Falcon 9 launch into low Earth orbit at $2,600 per kilogram. The corresponding price tag 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 craft.

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

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

Shares in MHI closed 0.37% lower, while the broader Japanese benchmark (.N225) was up 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: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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