H2A Launch: Bounce Back from Recent Failures, Aim for Successful Lunar Landing

The H2A Launch Vehicle No. 47 has successfully blasted off. It is hoped that the successful launch of Japan’s mainstay rocket will be an opportunity to rebuild the nation’s space program, which has been in dire straits due to a series of failures.

Since last year, the domestic rocket development field has seen failed launches of the small Epsilon-6 rocket and the first H3 vehicle, the H2A’s successor. There was also an explosion during ground testing of the Epsilon S, an improved version of the Epsilon rocket.

The causes of these failures, which included equipment problems, were different. However, the frequent occurrence of issues raised suspicion that the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency has suffered a decline in its technical capabilities. With their backs to the wall, the people involved in JAXA space projects must have been relieved after the latest launch.

This is the 41st consecutive successful launch of an H2A. Since the rocket’s maiden launch in 2001, 46 of 47 launches have been successful, representing a success rate of about 98%. The record appears to demonstrate the inherent reliability of Japanese rockets.

However, the older and more costly H2A is set to be retired, with only three more scheduled launches remaining. There must be a recognition of the urgent need to complete the development of the H3 and Epsilon S rockets, which will become major part of the nation’s space program.

Other countries have increased the pace of their space development. To ensure that Japan does not fall further behind, JAXA must thoroughly analyze the malfunction of the second-stage engine that caused the failure of the first H3 launch and aim for liftoff again as soon as possible.

It is also significant that the H2A rocket was carrying the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM), which will orbit the Earth and then head to the moon. JAXA plans to attempt Japan’s first lunar landing around January or February next year.

So far, only the United States, the former Soviet Union, China and India have achieved lunar landings. If successful, Japan could become the fifth country to land a spacecraft on the moon.

In April this year, a Japanese startup attempted a lunar landing, but the mission ended in failure. Russia also attempted a lunar landing in August for the first time in about half a century, but that mission failed. Moon landings remain a difficult challenge.

SLIM is small and lightweight, and it is believed to be less likely to fail because it lands on its side, which is said to be more stable.

Until now, a lunar landing has been considered a success if the landing could be made anywhere within a wide area of a few kilometers. However, JAXA will aim for a “pinpoint landing” with a margin of error of less than 100 meters with SLIM.

If successful, it will be the world’s first high-accuracy landing, and the technology used in SLIM will help in future lunar exploration. The technology could also serve as an opportunity for Japan to demonstrate its strength in space development.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Sept. 9, 2023)