Investigate cause and learn from experience

The launch of the Epsilon-6 solid-fuel rocket by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) ended in failure. It is important to identify the cause of the failure and resume launch operations as soon as possible.

The relatively small Epsilon launch vehicle is one of Japan’s mainstay rockets, along with the larger H2A liquid-fuel rocket.

The Epsilon-6 rocket launched from Kagoshima Prefecture was destroyed by a signal from ground control a few minutes after liftoff when it deviated from its planned course before the separation of the second and third stages. The eight small satellites of startups and universities that were being carried by the rocket were also lost.

It is said that the attitude of solid-fuel rockets is inherently more difficult to control compared to liquid-fuel rockets, which have adjustable combustion. Firstly, it is necessary to determine the cause of the attitude control failure. However, it is expected to be difficult to recover the rocket, which fell into the sea.

JAXA received orders to carry commercial satellites on Epsilon for the first time on this launch. In recent years, demand for launching a large number of small satellites for communication and ground observation has been increasing. The latest incident was a painful failure, as expectations have been high that such launches could develop into a new market.

With a high success rate to date, Japan must ensure that faith in the nation’s rocket launches is not shaken.

Historically, however, space exploration has been fraught with failure. It is hoped that JAXA, manufacturers and others involved will continue to take on the challenge without being discouraged by the mishap.

SpaceX, the U.S. venture that dominates the global satellite launch market, overcame repeated failures to reach its current status.

Japan had not had a launch failure of a mainstay rocket since the 2003 launch of H2A-6. An investigation into the cause of the failure took time and rocket development stalled. The development of the H3, the successor to the H2A, has also been delayed.

The first launch of an Epsilon S, the successor to Epsilon, is scheduled for fiscal 2023. From the second launch, operations are set to be transferred from JAXA to IHI Aerospace Co., a private company. The latest failure should not affect the plan.

With the entry of the private sector, the cost of space exploration is decreasing. The speed of progress is also faster, compared to the era when governments led development.

However, while high technology and precision manufacturing are characteristics of Japanese rockets, they are expensive to launch and there have been struggles on the business side.

Going forward, the public and private sectors should work together to quickly develop technologies and reduce costs, and strengthen the development system so Japan can compete in the global market.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Oct. 18, 2022)