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Space One’s Kairos Explodes on Maiden Flight

KAIROS lifts off from its pad at Space Port Kii, with SRB flames shooting out from below the rocket and the pad’s flame trench, the forested valley in the background. Seconds later, the rocket would be destroyed. (Credit: Kyoto News via USA Today

It has been a tough start for the fledgling private aerospace industry in Japan. On March 13th 2024, private aerospace company SPACE ONE aimed to perform the first private satellite launch from Japan. Launching from the company’s Space Port Kii, the Kii-based Advanced & Instant ROcket System (KAIROS) rocket carried a payload for the Japanese government, a satellite that would’ve acted as a temporary contingency incase of malfunctions aboard active intelligence satellites. This satellite however would not be deployed, or even delivered to space, as about five seconds after the rocket launched, the rocket detonated.

The KAIROS launch vehicle consists of four stages, three solid stages and then a small uppermost liquid stage. Solid stages by nature are not fueled ahead of a launch, the fuel is part of the assembly process. For rapid response missions, such as disaster relief or intelligence purposes, having a rocket that can exist on-standby and needs little pre-launch prep is sought after. With the space intelligence capabilities of nearby China, Russia, and now even North Korea, advancing, Japan finds itself in need of advancing its own capabilities in return. SPACE ONE’s website claims that the KAIROS rocket can be on the launch pad ready to fly just four days after its payload is delivered to Space Port Kii. The downside of solid fuel however is that once it begins to burn the booster can not stop until its fuel is exhausted.

The explosion of the KAIROS vehicle appeared to originate at the top of the first solid stage, and aerial footage showed what appeared to be the remains of the first stage falling back to the ground, fire shooting out both ends. While that fragment landed in the nearby retention pond, another burning segment of the vehicle landed in the nearby valley.

Cameras covering the launch stayed rolling while the fires burned and plumes of smoke filled the surrounding area, eventually causing a sprinkler system to start. No fires were started in the surrounding forests, and it seems the only thing burning was remaining fuel. Despite the violence of the rocket’s destruction, ONE SPACE president Masakazu Toyoda indicated that the explosion was triggered by the activation of KAIROS’s flight termination system (FTS). In other solid fuel launch vehicles, the FTS works by unzipping the stage vertically to allow fuel to rapidly burn in order to avoid uncontrolled stages making it to the ground still firing; the fact that KAIROS’ FTS does not do this raises some questions about its safety, however no injuries have been reported as a result of the failure. The extreme rate at which the loss of vehicle unfolded does make it difficult to tell if the flight termination system worked as intended, or was only one part of a cascading failure.

A column of smoke and flame traces the path taken by the KAIROS rocket leading up to and after its termination system was activated. Several burning pieces of debris are seen trailing off, and what is believed to be the remains of the first stage is seen burning from both ends to the lower left of the plume. (Credit: NHK News)

While the loss of the rocket and its payload are troubling, they do not necessarily seal the company’s fate. On February 17th, 2024, the Japanese government-funded H3 rocket completed its first successful launch following a failure of its second stage in March of the previous year. As we progress further into the modern age of rocketry, dramatic and explosive failures are becoming somewhat rare, although they are not unheard of. As an example, on January 10th, 2023, American launch provider ABL Space Systems experienced an explosive failure of their RS1 rocket, but now in March of 2024 the company has made it to pre-launch operations for their second launch attempt. While it is a tough start for SPACE ONE as a launch provider, it is now their duty to demonstrate they are able to investigate and determine the cause of a launch failure, and then plot their pathway back to the launch pad.

In a statement released on the company’s website in June of 2021, SPACE ONE announced the name KAIROS for its launch system, and described the reasoning behind it; “we have chosen to borrow the name Kairos from an Ancient Greek mythological concept of time. In ancient Greek, Kairos also means ‘chance,’ or ‘opportune time.’” At this time, it seems the opportune time for Japanese private rocketry is yet to come, but there remains hope that someday it will.

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