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Japan's next-gen H3 satellite launch vehicle fails on debut

Destroyed after second stage failed to ignite, making the mission impossible

Japan's space exploration agency (JAXA) has destroyed the first of its next-gen H3 boosters after it went off course during its maiden test flight.

The craft launched today from the Tanegashima spaceport and performed nominally for the first few minutes of its flight, with the rocket's first stage performing as planned and separating on schedule. But not long afterwards commentators on JAXA's livestream mentioned that the signal to ignite the second stage was not received, and reported that while the H3 continued to ascend, its speed had decreased.

JAXA then stopped streaming live telemetry and commentators said they had not been told that second stage ignition had taken place.

Not long afterwards came news that a signal to destroy the rocket had been sent, as JAXA determined it would not be possible to reach the intended orbit.

The rocket's sole payload – a Japanese land observation satellite – was presumably destroyed along with the rocket.

JAXA has high hopes for the H3 – a modular rocket capable of launching on its own, or with the assistance of two or four solid fuel boosters.

The craft has been in development for a decade, with JAXA working alongside Mitsubishi to create a satellite launch vehicle capable of handling diverse missions and competing with the likes of SpaceX on price.

The failure leaves JAXA without a reliable launcher, or a space truck to carry cargo to its substantial presence on the International Space Station (ISS).

Japan's last mission to the ISS came in May 2020 with the launch of the ninth and final rocket in its H-II series, which carried an HTV capsule full of cargo.

The successor HTV-X is designed to launch atop an H3 rocket. The new capsule is yet to be tested and the H3 clearly needs more work.

Today's failure came after the H3's first launch attempt, on February 17, sputtered out on the launchpad after the main booster didn’t send ignition instructions to the rocket's pair of solid boosters.

No such gremlins appeared today, and just after 1030 local time the first H3 Launch Vehicle – designated H3 TF1 – headed off bound for the heavens.

Then the second stage failed.

It's Japan’s second recent space-connected failure, after the October 2022 loss of eight satellites aboard an Epsilon launcher.

Japan's space program hadn’t lost a launcher in the previous 19 years. Now it's lost two in five months.

JAXA has already pencilled in half a dozen more H3 launches during 2023 alone, and plenty more afterwards, some with commercial payloads.

The failure is therefore a blow to JAXA, Mitsubishi, and launch customers. JAXA officials promised information about the failure would be made available once analysis of telemetry is complete. ®

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