Japan’s flagship H3 rocket reached planned trajectory in key 2nd test after failed debut last year

  • February 17, 2024

TOKYO — A new Japanese flagship H3 rocket lifted off from a space station in southwestern Japan on Saturday, successfully reaching a planned trajectory and releasing one of the two payloads in a key second test flight a year after its failed debut launch.

The H3 rocket blasted off from a launch pad at the Tanegashima Space Center on time Saturday morning, two days after its originally scheduled liftoff which was delayed due to bad weather.

The rocket’s initial flight has been smooth as planned and it successfully released the first of two small payloads, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, said. JAXA will have a news conference later in the day to provide further details. Officials are confirming the status of a second satellite.

The launch is closely watched as a test for Japan’s space development after H3 failed in its debut flight last March. JAXA and its main contractor Mitsubishi Heavy Industries have been developing H3 as a successor to its current mainstay, H-2A, which is set to retire after two more flights.

H3 project team members have been under heavy pressure to have the rocket return to flight. The H3 No. 2 rocket was decorated with thousands of stickers carrying cheering messages sent from well-wishers around the country.

As the rocket soared and reached its trajectory and released its first payload successfully, project members at the JAXA command center cheered and hugged each other in a livestreaming footage. NHK television said some staff at a press center were seen crying with relief and joy.

In its debut flight last March, the rocket had to be destroyed along with its payload, the advanced land observation satellite, or ALOS-3. This time, the rocket will carry a mockup of the ALOS satellite, called VEP-4, though it’s not designed to be released.

JAXA says the primary goal of the second test flight is to put the rocket into the intended trajectory. The agency also planned to place two observation microsatellites into orbit.

Saturday’s success is a major boost for Japan’s space program as the country struggles to stay competitive in the global space race.

H3 is designed to carry larger payloads than H-2A at much lower costs to be globally competitive.

Expectations were high following a recent streak of successes. JAXA last month made a historic precision moon landing with a spacecraft that had been launched from the H-2A rocket, days after the 48th H-2A rocket successfully placed a spy satellite into its planned orbit.

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