Connect with us

Economy & Tech

Success as Second H3 Rocket Launched: What to Know

After early hiccups, Japan has successfully launched its next-generation H3 rocket, and the mood at the Japan Space Exploration Agency could hardly be better.



JAXA launches its second H3 rocket from the Tanegashima Space Center on the morning of February 17. Kagoshima Prefecture (©Kyodo by helicopter)

With a revolutionary design concept based on cost-efficiency, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's H3 launch vehicle is a demonstration of Japan's competitiveness. After earlier disappointments, JAXA's second H3 launch vehicle successfully lifted off from Tanegashima Space Center on February 17. JAPAN Forward correspondent Agnes Tandler was there and this is her report.

JAXA officials rejoice after confirming the separation of the satellite aboard the H3 rocket No 2 launched from the Tanegashima Space Center on February 17. (© Sankei by Kan Emori)

Tanegashima, Japan's 'Rocket Island'

(Reporting from Tanegashima) There were loud cheers and tears of joy at Tanegashima Space Center. Finally, 11 months after a failed start, the new generation H3 rocket of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) lifted off into space. In doing so, it made rocketry look so deceivingly effortless.  

Tanegashima is an island off the southern tip of Kyushu and Japan's closest place to space. It lies about 115 kilometers south of Kagoshima City. From here the Japanese space agency JAXA launches their rockets into space. 

It has been 11 months since the H3 maiden flight ended in failure. With it, Japan also suffered the loss of an earth observation satellite that cost over $250 million USD. Another failed launch would certainly be a disaster of an even greater scale for the space agency. This time the gods needed to be firmly on JAXA's side. 

Engineers and others involved with the launch arrive at a tiny shrine next to the launch center to pray for success. (© JAPAN Forward by Agnes Tandler)

21 hours before the scheduled lift-off, a tiny shrine known to be a magical  "power spot" on Tanegashima island saw an unusual influx of visitors. "For Saturday," explained the aerospace engineer. Meanwhile, he and his team placed two large bottles of rice wine at the altar between palm trees and prayed for good luck. After one aborted and one failed start even a serious engineer needed to have a word with the gods. 

At midday, there were already a total of 16 rice wine bottles at the altar. Maybe last time the space agency just didn't bring enough to drink.    

View of Tanegashima Space Center. (© JAPAN Forward by Agnes Tandler)

Setting the Stage on Valentine's Day

On Tuesday, February 14, Masashi Okada looked like a man who lacked sleep. The project manager at JAXA had spent years preparing for the H3 launch. Even as the sky over Tanegashima looked friendly, the planned launch date for February 15 got postponed for another two days. At the pre-launch press briefing. Okada cited bad weather with strong winds and the probability of thunder. 

The aerospace engineer is a stickler for detail, and he has to be. Rocketry is not for the fainthearted. Even after decades of development, the technology is far from foolproof. Liquid hydrogen, the fuel that powers rockets, is a capricious lover. Maiden flights still have a high failure rate. 

With a rocket, you can only roll the dice a single time. No simulation is perfect enough to anticipate all possible problems that the launch of a new carrier could encounter. Once the ignition command is given the moment of truth arrives.

H3 rocket No 2 launched from the Tanegashima Space Center February 17. (© Sankei by Kan Emori)

Launch Day.

On Saturday, the sky over Tanegashima was bright, the wind had calmed down. At 9.25 the countdown was in the two digits. 55 seconds to lift off. A female voice calmly ran down the numbers while the seconds were ticking away. 

Sound travels a lot slower than light, by the time she has reached 5 a bright white light from the rocket was visible. It was a show of the massive amount of energy that powers the rocket. And then it was airborne. 


Only now the sound of the rocket was audible like an angry dragon taking flight. By the time the count had reached zero, the rocket was already up in the sky leaving a huge white cloud behind as it accelerated and moved to leave the earth's orbit. 

It was overwhelming to watch, something that seemed beyond human scale. The tension was palpable. Everyone at JAXA was holding their breath. However, as the minutes passed and the rocket stayed steady on its projected flight path, the mood at the agency lifted.

JAXA project manager Masashi Okada (right) and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries project manager Mayuki Niitsu smile and shake hands after the press conference held after the launch of the second H3 rocket. On the afternoon of February 17, at Tanegashima Space Center in Minamitane-cho, Kagoshima Prefecture. (©Sankei by Kan Emori)

Measuring the Risks

The H3's predecessors, the H-II and H-IIA, both performed flawlessly on their maiden flights. Both carried test evaluation payloads to avoid risking the loss of a real satellite. 

The success led JAXA to believe that the H3 would also be a perfect performer. They were proven wrong and lost the sophisticated earth observation satellite ALOS-3. That was the satellite put on board H3's first flight. This time the rocket only carried a test load. But this did not make the launch less risky.

This tiny mascot guides visitors to a map on the island. (© JAPAN Forward by Agnes Tandler)

Getting Through to the Island

Anticipation on the island had been high. With a population of less than 30,000 people, Tanegashima is normally a very laid-back rural place. Only when JAXA is launching a new rocket does the number of visitors increase steeply. Hotels run out of rooms and rental cars are fully booked. 

Tanegashima is also said to be the most beautiful launch pad for rockets in the world. The subtropical island has pristine sandy beaches stretching 57 kilometers. It offers green mountains, mangrove forests, Cyclades, and banyan trees. Along its coast, coral reefs grow and sea turtles swim in the water. Rock arches and natural caves also make for a stunning background to the blue water. 

Despite its natural beauty, not many visitors make their way to Tanegashima. Japan has over 7,000 islands and tropical paradises like Tanegashima are many.

There is hope that the number of visitors will increase once JAXA launches more rockets. After all, Tanegashima has a lot more to offer than Kourou, the remote stretch of mangrove jungle in South America near the equator from where the European Space Agency (ESA) launches its rockets into space. 

Apart from a French army base, the spaceport, and a hotel, Kourou has pretty little to offer. And like Florida, where the John F Kennedy Space Center and NASA are located, it has plenty of crocodiles.       

JAXA project manager Masashi Okada gives a thumbs up in front of a poster of the H3 rocket No 2 in a press conference on the afternoon of February 17. At the Tanegashima Space Center. (© Sankei by Kan Emori)


Finally, 15 minutes into the flight, there were cheers and tears of joy. The final verdict was in. After a nail-biting wait, JAXA confirmed that the launch was a success. The H3 rocket stood the test. 

The agency showed that Japan's next-generation space rocket was working. It was also a critical project to secure Japan's place in the lucrative satellite launch business. With the H3, it now has a rocket that is cost-effective enough to be competitive on the global market. 


After all, the number of rice wine bottles offered at the Homan shrine has finally been enough.


Learn more about the H3 rocket and earlier disappointments through JAPAN Forward's previous coverage:

Author: Agnes Tandler (Tanegashima)

Our Partners