Japan’s H3 rocket self-destructs in space during a failed launch

JAXA’s second attempt to launch the H3 rocket turned out to be a major setback for Japan’s space ambitions. As the rocket left the launch pad, the country’s space authorities were forced to activate its flight termination system a few minutes later after the second stage engine failed to ignite. In an announcement, JAXA said the self-destruct command was sent to the rocket at 10:52 AM Japan time (8:52 PM ET) “because there is no possibility of achieving the mission.” The agency is still investigating the incident to find out what happened.

The H3 was built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries after the program was first approved in 2013, and it cost the country more than 200 billion yen ($1.5 billion). JAXA had hoped to launch the rocket in 2020 – and it completed a functional test for the H3 that year – but had to delay its inaugural flight due to engineering problems. The first actual launch attempt on February 17 of this year was aborted before the vehicle was able to lift off due to an electrical interference issue in the first stage.

According to Nikkei Asia, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida sees the H3 as “crucial to the country’s business and national security ambitions.” It was created to put more Japanese surveillance satellites into orbit and to become a key component of a business that would provide launch services to clients. JAXA and Mitsubishi apparently managed to halve its original launch cost to $50 million, which they believe is lower than the cost of launching SpaceX’s Falcon 9. In the future, it is also expected to carry cargo to support the Lunar Gateway project of the NASA Artemis program.

The damaged H3 rocket was carrying ALOS-3, a satellite with disaster management tools that can be quickly deployed to observe affected areas. Reuters said it was also equipped with an experimental infrared sensor developed with the ability to detect North Korea’s ballistic missile launches.

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