Japan intentionally explodes own space rocket during inaugural flight


Japan was forced to blow up and destroy its flagship space rocket minutes after it blasted off on Tuesday, after one of its engine ignitions failed to properly operate.

The embarrassing and costly action occurred during the debut launch of the country’s new heavy-lift H3 rocket, which took off from the Tanegashima Space Center and hurtled toward the Pacific Ocean moments later. The same rocket had an aborted launch last month. The incident strikes another blow to Japan’s efforts to become a competitive global space power.

The flagship H3 launch vehicle took off at 10:37 a.m. local time, Hiroshi Yamakawa, president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), told reporters Tuesday. It was carrying an “advanced optical satellite.”

“But the second-stage engine did not ignite,” he continued. “Because it is not possible to put the rocket into the planned orbit, we sent a destruct signal to the rocket,” minutes later at 10:51 a.m.

Japan’s new medium-lift rocket failed on its debut flight in space on March 7 after the launcher’s second-stage engine did not ignite as planned. (Video: Reuters)

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“A destruct command has been transmitted to H3 … because there was no possibility of achieving the mission,” the agency said in a brief memo.

Japan’s space agency will set up a task force to investigate the reason behind the failure, it said.

Yasuhiro Funo, JAXA director for launch implementation, told the Associated Press that the vehicle had plummeted into the deep sea off the Philippines coast, and that the rocket was unsafe and had to be intentionally destroyed after it failed to operate and missed its targeted orbit.

The H3 rocket is about 63 meters tall and Japan’s first new model in decades, according to JAXA. It is billed as Japan’s next-generation heavy-lift launch vehicle, and a successor to its H2 rocket that is due to be retired. Made by JAXA and contractor Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, it is designed to be low cost and allow for the launching of government and commercial satellites into space.

“The H3 rocket is extremely important for the government, private companies and universities, from the stance of ensuring our independent access to space and also to ensure our international competitiveness,” Yamakawa said.

Japanese officials hope the H3 will allow them a cheaper way to compete with others, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX company.

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The H3 was carrying an Advanced Land Observation Satellite, known as the ALOS-3 system, JAXA said. This would have allowed it to engage in observation, mapping, data collection for disaster response and monitor nearby military activity, including North Korean missile launches.

“It will take some time to figure out the cause of this failure or take any measures, and in terms of cost, the burden will also increase,” Yamakawa said. “But ultimately … we are still aiming to field an internationally competitive rocket.”

Japan’s Science and Technology Minister Keiko Nagaoka called it a “very regrettable” failure, Reuters reported, and promised to support the task force investigating the incident

Elsewhere, the European Space Agency director general, Josef Aschbacher, tweeted his support and said he was “so sorry” to learn of the failed flight. His agency, “stands by Japan, a steadfast partner of ours, and wishes a swift return to launchpad,” he added.

Naomi Schanen contributed to this report.

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