TOKYO, Feb. 17 (Reuters) – Japan on Friday halted the launch of its first new medium-lift rocket in three decades just before the H3 vehicle was due to take off after secondary booster motors tethered to the side failed to fire.
During the live-streamed event, the H3’s main engine failed after the launch countdown reached zero, leaving the 57-meter rocket on the ground near 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), Masahisa Okada, said at a media briefing as he wiped away tears.
“It’s really hurtful,” he added.
Okada said JAXA would aim for a second attempt before the end of March.
Japan built the H3 to improve its independent access to space and increase its chances of capturing a larger share of the global launch market from rivals including Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
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It is designed to launch government and commercial satellites into orbit and deliver supplies to the International Space Station. As part of Tokyo’s closer 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 program to return humans to the moon.
The United States has promised Japan a seat on one of its manned lunar missions.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (7011.T), the builder and launch manager of the H3, hopes the rocket will boost its space ambitions as SpaceX shakes up commercial launches with its reusable rockets, including the Falcon 9.
A September report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated the cost of a Falcon 9 launch into low Earth orbit at $2,600 per kilogram. The equivalent price tag for H3’s predecessor, the H-II, is $10,500.
“With the H3, we are aiming to halve the cost per launch,” said a Mitsubishi Heavy spokesperson ahead of the planned launch.
A successful first mission would have launched the Japanese rocket into space before the scheduled launch this year of the European Space Agency’s new, lower-cost Ariane vehicle.
Reporting by Tim Kelly and Rocky Swift; Edited by Jacqueline Wong, Muralikumar Anantharaman and Gerry Doyle
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