After an Explosive First Attempt, Japan Will Try Again to Launch the H3 Rocket

The H3 rocket—11 years in the making—is set for its second launch, following a flubbed debut in March 2023. Japan urgently needs the rocket to succeed, with a second failure risking further delays and monumental headaches for Japan’s space program.

H3 is ready to fly again after its botched maiden launch last year, with Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) targeting Wednesday, February 14 at 7:22 p.m. ET (Thursday, February 15 at 9:22 a.m. JST). The two-stage rocket, assisted by two side boosters, will blast off from Yoshinobu Launch Complex at the JAXA Tanegashima Space Center with a dummy payload and two small satellites on board.

The liquid-fueled H3 rocket flew for just 15 minutes on March 6, 2023, before mission controllers were forced to issue the dreaded self-destruct command. The first stage worked like a charm, but the same could not be said for the second stage, which failed to alight due to an electrical glitch. This came as a big surprise to the space agency; unlike the H3’s first stage, which features newer, more advanced technologies and innovations, the second stage relies on proven, established technologies that had been used in previous Japanese rockets, like the H-2 series.

Related article: What to Know About the H3 Rocket, Japan’s Ticket to the Moon

Following the launch failure, JAXA initiated an exhaustive investigation involving staff from various departments and former employees. The investigative team focused on the electrical system of the second-stage engine, analyzing flight data and manufacturing records, identifying three potential causes, including a short circuit in the ignition device, according to Japan Times. Nearly one year later, JAXA, along with partner Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, is finally ready to give it another go.

The failed launch from last year resulted in the loss of the $200 million ALOS-3 advanced Earth-observing satellite. JAXA took a lot of heat for including such an expensive satellite on an inaugural mission. Not willing to repeat the same mistake twice, the space agency has placed a dummy payload inside the fairing (to emulate the mass of an actual payload), alongside a 154-pound (70-kilogram) observation satellite built by Canon Electronics and a nanosatellite belonging to Japan Space Systems.

The H3 failure also threw a serious wrench into Japan’s space plans, affecting its influence in the global space industry. In development since 2013, the 207-foot (63-meter) H3 rocket is set to become JAXA’s premier rocket, aiming for a launch rate of two per year over the next two decades. This rocket, succeeding Japan’s H2-A, offers a streamlined first stage, increased payload capacity, reduced complexity with fewer parts, and greater adaptability. With an estimated launch cost of $38 million, the H3 should be an attractive choice for both governmental and commercial customers. Potential future enhancements could allow it to make cargo deliveries to the International Space Station and the planned Gateway space station in lunar orbit.

The implications of the failed inaugural mission extended beyond the loss of ALOS-3. It raised concerns about delays in other crucial missions, including those involving international collaborations. For example, the Martian Moons Exploration mission, originally scheduled for launch aboard H3 in August 2024, has been delayed to November 2026. Ongoing H3 delays are affecting scientific missions (including Japan’s ALOS-4), but also Japan’s commercial satellite launch contracts and its role in international space exploration efforts, such as NASA’s Artemis program.

Needless to say, a failed second launch would be double-plus-ungood. Fingers crossed that the next attempt will succeed.

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