Move Fast to Identify and Fix Problems to Ensure a Near-Future Launch

The first launch of Japan’s new H3 mainstay rocket was aborted moments before liftoff. The cause should be investigated and it is hoped that a launch can take place at an early date.

The H3, jointly developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., is to serve as Japan’s core rocket for the next 20 years. The launch of the first H3 would have been a major step in that direction.

However, as the countdown to launch progressed and after the main engine ignited, no signal was sent to command the ignition of the auxiliary rocket boosters attached to either side of the main body. The launch automatically terminated after some kind of abnormality was detected in the main body, according to JAXA.

Once the auxiliary rocket boosters ignited, the rocket would have begun to ascend. It is regrettable that the mission did not result in a launch this time, but the fact that the launch was aborted just before it was to take place can be said to indicate that the rocket functioned properly, compared to a complete failure that would have resulted in the loss of the main body of the rocket and its satellite payload.

The previous mainstay H-2A rocket has been supporting Japan’s space program for years, boasting a high launch success rate of 98%. However, due to its high cost of ¥10 billion per launch, it has struggled to win orders in the commercial satellite launch market in recent years.

Because of this, the government began the development of the H3 in 2014. In addition to simplifying the design to reduce costs, efforts such as converting inexpensive automotive electronic parts for use as components shrank the total cost by half to ¥5 billion.

However, in the rocket launch business, not only price but also reliability in launching on schedule are taken into consideration. The high quality H-2A was highly regarded in this respect, but if the launch of the H3 continues to be postponed, international credibility could be lost.

The development of the H3 was plagued by engine problems, which had already delayed its launch by two years. Last year, the launch of the small rocket Epsilon ended in failure due to a clogged pipe, and 2022 became the first year in 18 years in which no rockets were successfully launched.

In contrast, the U.S. company SpaceX is capable of launching dozens of rockets a year in a stable manner and holds a dominant position in the global launch market.

If Japan takes too much time to figure out the cause of the H3’s launch trouble, the delay will likely cause it to lose an opportunity to enter the global market to increase orders.

In recent years, the cost of launching satellites has dropped, creating new demand for a large number of small satellites that can be linked together for high-speed communications. Japan must strive to develop a rocket swiftly, launch it reliably and establish a system that can compete with the rest of the world.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Feb. 18, 2023)