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JAXA eyes February for H3 Return to Flight

JAXA and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ H3 rocket sits on the pad ahead of its first flight.
Credit: JAXA

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is poised for its second attempt at launching its next generation H3 rocket no earlier than February 15, 2024 from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center. 

Despite a nominal liftoff for the first stage, JAXA’s first attempt at launching H3 in March 2023 ended with a mission failure and loss of the payload following the use of the flight termination system after the rocket’s second stage could not have been confirmed to have ignited. At the time of failure, H3 was carrying an Earth observation satellite that was intended to monitor natural disasters, called  Advanced Land Observing Satellite 3 (ALOS-3). 

Unlike the first launch, H3’s second launch will be carrying a Vehicle Evaluation Payload—effectively a dummy to simulate a satellite’s mass instead of the previously planned ALOS-4 Earth observation satellite—to monitor the rocket’s performance, as well as two small satellites. One being CE-SAT-1E, an earth imaging satellite developed by Canon Electronics and the other, TIRSAT, is a cubesat built by Japan Space Systems, an agency tasked with developing Earth monitoring systems, to test an infrared sensor for observation.

Prior to the failed launch, H3’s original launch attempt had been aborted shortly after ignition of  the rocket’s two core stage LE-9 engines because “an anomaly was found in the first stage system and ignition signals for SRB-3s were not sent”, causing a failure of the rocket’s boosters to ignite. H3 was rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for investigation, according to a JAXA press release. 

JAXA has disclosed few details on their investigation into the mission failure, but has confirmed that the previous mission was ultimately not successful, a difficult start for Japan’s new flagship lifter.

H3 has been developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries as Japan’s answer to a rapidly growing space industry with both the public and private sector having an insatiable demand for reliable access to orbit. As the successor to the currently operational H-IIA rocket, H3 aims to be more cost-effective and dependable with a quicker turnaround time between launches – a goal eventually of six per year. With a stated cost per launch of $50 million, H3’s price point could make it potentially more affordable than the European Space Agency’s upcoming Ariane 6 rocket and even SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9. Despite being unable to secure any private payloads at this point in time, JAXA hopes that a flight-proven H3 will attract customers from around the world. Space Scout previously did a deep dive into H3’s ambitions here.

Another failure of H3 could potentially have a cascading effect on Japan’s burgeoning space industry. H3 currently has 28 planned launches through 2033 and another costly failure poses the risk of future delays as well as shaken confidence in JAXA’s ability to reach orbit. In a world in which access to space is dominated by just a handful of players, having ready and reliable launch vehicles across the globe is becoming increasingly important. Even then, those with proven vehicles can lose access to space as well. As the European Space Agency’s Ariane 5 rocket lifted off for the final time on July 5, 2023, the ESA’s access to space became uncertain. Mired by technical delays, Ariane 6 isn’t set to launch until the second half of 2024 at the earliest. With nearly a year-long gap in between flights, Europe’s access to space has become dependent on other launchers like SpaceX highlighting the urgent need for wider availability of launch vehicles around the world.

Despite its setbacks, Japan’s space program’s perseverance provides hope for increased democratization of access to space for other nations around the globe.

Edited by Nik Alexander

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