TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s new medium-lift rocket failed on its maiden voyage into space on Tuesday after the launcher’s second-stage engine didn’t fire as planned, in a blow to its efforts to lower the cost of space access and compete against Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
A live broadcast by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) showed that the 57-meter (187-foot) H3 rocket lifted off unhindered from Tanegashima Cosmodrome.
Upon reaching space, however, the rocket’s second stage engine failed to ignite, forcing mission officials to manually destroy the craft.
A commentator on the broadcast from JAXA said, “It was decided that the missile could not complete its mission, so the order to destroy was sent.” “So what happened? It’s something we have to investigate given all the data.”
The failed attempt follows an aborted launch last month.
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“Unlike previous cancellations and postponements, this time it was a complete failure,” said Hirotaka Watanabe, a professor at Osaka University with expertise in space policy.
“This will have a serious impact on Japan’s future space policy, space business and technological competitiveness,” he added.
The first new Japanese missile in three decades was carrying ALOS-3, a disaster-monitoring satellite for disaster management, which is also equipped with an experimental infrared sensor designed to detect North Korean ballistic missile launches.
The H3’s builder, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) (7011.T), said it was confirming the situation surrounding the missile 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 was also relying on the reliability of previous Japanese missiles to win business.
In a report published in September, the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated the cost of launching a Falcon 9 into low Earth orbit at $2,600 per kilogram. The equivalent H-II is priced at $10,500.
Tuesday’s successful launch would have put the Japanese rocket into space ahead of the planned launch later this year of the European Space Agency’s new low-cost Ariane 6 spacecraft.
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 deep cooperation with the United States in space, it will also eventually transport cargo to the Gateway lunar space station that NASA plans to build as part of its program to return people to the moon, including Japanese astronauts.
MHI shares were down 1.8% in morning trading, while Japan’s broader main index (.N225) was up 0.4%.
Additional reporting by Tim Kelly, Maki Shiraki and Rocky Swift; Additional reporting by Satoshi Sugiyama in Tokyo and Joy Roulette in Washington. Editing by Christopher Cushing and Jamie Fried
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