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EDITORIAL | H2A Rocket a Preview of Japan's High-Precision Landing Technology

After the successful H2A rocket launch, Japan hopes to achieve a high-precision landing using technology that could also apply to future manned Mars missions.



JAXA lunar rover SLIM
Liftoff of the successful launch of the JAXA rocket H2A (number 47), carrying the SLIM lunar explorer and the XRISM X-ray astronomical satellite. (Screenshot)

On September 7, Japan's mainstay large H2A rocket (Number 47) was launched from the Tanegashima Space Center. It carried aloft the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon, or SLIM, small-scale lunar explorer, Japan's first such lunar lander. Also onboard was the XRISM X-ray astronomical satellite. They entered their intended orbits without incident.

Although this was the 41st consecutive successful launch for the H2A rocket, the fact remains that Japan's space program has been sorely tested of late. There have been domestic rockets failing in two recent instances. 

In October 2022, there was the attempted launch of the small Epsilon 6. Next, in March 2023, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) experienced the failed first launch of the next-generation large H3 rocket. That was followed in July by an explosion during an engine combustion test of the next-generation small launch vehicle, Epsilon S.

Meanwhile, the H2A has earned a global reputation for reliability. Yet, it is scheduled to be taken out of service after the launching of Number 50. 

That means that there will be only three more launchings before its retirement. For that reason, we cannot indulge in unalloyed joy at the successful launching of the 47th H2A in the series.

The ground crew of the H2A launch celebrates its success on September 7, 2023.

JAXA Rocket Program at a Turning Point

Japan's rocket program is at a critical juncture. After a thorough investigation into the causes of the recent launch failures and accidents, the essence of the success accumulated by the H2A must be passed on to its successors. And international trust in Japan's rockets must be won back. 

Global space development too is at a turning point. In August, an Indian probe successfully landed on the moon ahead of Japan's SLIM. Meanwhile, Russia, which had a track record of success during the former Soviet era, saw its own lunar probe crash into the moon's surface.

With the rise of China and the rapid growth of the private sector space industry, including the United States company SpaceX, the face of the battle for leadership in space is constantly changing. It is becoming more complex and intense by the day.

From the perspective of national security and in order to ensure that our space business turns a profit, Japan must be among the ranks of the leaders in the field of space.

In that sense, the challenge of landing the SLIM lunar probe on the moon is also critical. The lunar landing is expected to take place around January or February 2024. 

An image showing what the SLIM lunar explorer will look like on the surface of the moon.

Showcasing Japanese Precision Technology

Even though India beat us to the punch, we definitely want to be the fifth country to land a lunar probe. Japan would be following the former Soviet Union, the United States, China, and now India.

Japanese scientists hope to achieve a pinpoint landing with SLIM, with a margin of error of less than 100 meters from the target point. If the technology needed to achieve such a feat can be demonstrated and established, the four countries that got to the moon ahead of us will have to sit up and take notice. Their margins of error are all estimated to be several kilometers or more. High-precision landing technology could also be utilized in future manned Mars missions.

Japan probably cannot hope to compete with the US and China in all areas of space development. But it should be able to possess technology that other countries will also want and need.


(Read the editorial in Japanese.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun

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