TOKYO, March 7 (Reuters) – Japan’s new medium-lift rocket failed on its debut space flight on Tuesday after the launch vehicle’s second stage engine failed to ignite as planned, in a blow to its efforts to reduce the cost of accessing space and compete against Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
The 57-meter-tall H3 rocket lifted off without a hitch from the Tanegashima spaceport, a live-streamed broadcast by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) showed.
But when it reached space, the rocket’s second-stage engine failed to ignite, forcing mission officials to manually destroy the vehicle.
“It was determined that the rocket could not complete its mission, so the destruction command was sent,” said a commentator for the JAXA launch broadcast. “So what happened? That’s something we’ll have to look into when we look at all the data.”
The failed attempt followed an aborted launch last month.
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“Unlike the previous cancellation and postponement, this time it was a complete failure,” said Hirotaka Watanabe, a professor at Osaka University specializing in space policy.
“This will have a serious impact on Japan’s future space policy, space business and technological competitiveness,” he added.
Japan’s first new rocket in three decades carried ALOS-3, a land observation satellite for disaster management, which was also equipped with an experimental infrared sensor designed to detect North Korean ballistic missile launches.
H3 builder Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd ( MHI ) ( 7011.T ) said it confirmed the situation surrounding the rocket with JAXA and had no immediate comment.
MHI has estimated that the H3’s costs 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 spokesman previously said it also relied on the reliability of Japan’s previous rockets to get business.
In a report published in September, the Center for Strategic and International Studies put the cost of a Falcon 9 launch to low Earth orbit at $2,600 per kilograms. The corresponding price tag for the H-II is $10,500.
A successful launch on Tuesday would have put the Japanese rocket into space ahead of the planned launch later this year of the European Space Agency’s new lower-cost Ariane 6 vehicle.
Powered by a new simpler, cheaper engine that includes 3D-printed parts, the H3 is designed to lift government and commercial satellites into Earth orbit and will carry supplies to the International Space Station.
As part of Japan’s deepening cooperation with the United States in space, it will also eventually transport cargo to the Gateway lunar space station, which the US space agency NASA plans to build as part of its program to return humans to the moon, including Japanese astronauts.
Shares in MHI fell 1.8% in morning trade, while the broader Japanese benchmark index (.N225) rose 0.4%.
Reporting by Tim Kelly, Maki Shiraki and Rocky Swift; Additional reporting by Satoshi Sugiyama in Tokyo and Joey Roulette in Washington; Editing by Christopher Cushing and Jamie Freed
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