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Japan's H3 Rocket Launch: Self-Destruct Command Sent After Second Stage Engine Failure

The H3 rocket being developed by JAXA and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is at the frontier of commercially available space technology. 



H3 rocket launch on March 7, just after 10:37 AM JST, from Tanegashima Space Center, in Minamitane, Kagoshima Prefecture.  (©Sankei by Kan Emori)

Japan's next-generation H3 rocket launched without incident. But then it failed mere minutes after liftoff, prompting the delivery of the rocket's command to self-destruct. 

On March 7, just after 10:37 AM JST, Japan's next-generation large rocket H3 was launched from Tanegashima Space Center, in Minamitane, Kagoshima Prefecture. 

Lifting off just ten seconds after the prescribed time, the rocket seemed to travel flawlessly for the first few minutes. Then it became invisible to the naked eye and the many media following this historical event. 

However, fifteen minutes after liftoff, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) live stream reported that the second-stage engine failed to ignite, prompting the self-destruct command, which is a safety measure that automatically kicks in when there is no chance for the rocket to successfully complete its mission. 

The last time a Japanese rocket launch failed was in October 2022, when JAXA's Epsilon-6 suffered a malfunction after liftoff. 

JAXA official explains that the order to self-destruct has been issued for H3 rocket (© Sankei by Kan Emori)

Development Challenges for the Brand New Rocket

The H3 is the successor to Japan's existing mainstay H-IIA and H-IIB rockets. It was newly developed by JAXA and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI). This was the first time in about 30 years that a new, entirely domestic liquid-fueled rocket was launched. 

The mission was a long time in the making, as the rocket was built from the ground up. Liftoff was initially scheduled for 2020, but was delayed for two years due to problems in developing the engine. 

Most recently, the H3 was supposed to go into space on February 17, 2023. But the launch was called off mere seconds before liftoff due to a malfunction in the electrical signal. Following the scrubbed launch, the development team had taken countermeasures to avoid the recurrence of the issue. 

H3 rocket
Artist's rendering of the H3 rocket in flight (© JAXA)

Rocket for a New Space Age

Notably, the large next-generation rocket was developed with a focus on meeting the needs of private companies. This was unlike previous rockets, whose main purpose was government-led space development projects. 

The developers JAXA and MHI sought to achieve low-cost. 

One reason is that the H-IIA costs around ¥10 billion JPY ($76 million USD) for a single launch. That made it more expensive than European and American rockets, and less competitive in satellite launches. 

To mitigate this, the H3 had been thoroughly designed to reduce costs. Instead of all custom designed parts, about 90% of the electronic components were readily available, like automobile parts. As a result, the launch cost was halved to about ¥5 billion JPY ($38 million USD).

Government and private enterprise alike hope that the H3 will contribute to the establishment of Japan's space business by attracting a large number of orders for satellite launches from private companies. 

In the March 7 launch, aiming to build up a launch track record towards this goal, the H3 carried the national advanced optical satellite DAICHI-3. This one has the potential to be used for disaster response and other purposes. The satellite was to be injected into orbit at an altitude of 669 km approximately 17 minutes after launch.


Author: Arielle Busetto


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