Japan’s new H3 missile is forced to self-destruct during its inaugural launch

Space is hard — even in 2023. Instead of celebrating the launch of its new H3 rocket, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency is now trying to figure out what went wrong during Monday’s failed flight.

The H3 two-stage rocket left the pad on schedule, lifting into the sky at 8:37 PM ET on March 6 from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan. It was only after the first stage separated that things started to go wrong, with ground controllers saying they were unable to confirm ignition of the second stage engine. Controllers then made the decision to activate the missile’s flight termination system, saying there was “no possibility of mission accomplishment.” The command to destroy was transmitted at 8:52 PM ET, according to JAXA.

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The launch was proceeding well prior to the anomaly, with the solid rocket boosters separating approximately two minutes into the mission and the first stage completing its liftoff duties before stalling and separating near the fifth minute. The rocket was flying in a southerly direction in an attempt to enter a polar orbit. The second stage was scheduled to launch at 5:16 of the mission, but never did, making it impossible for the vehicle to reach orbit; the second stage didn’t reach more than about 400 miles (630 kilometers), according to data shown during JAXA’s live broadcast. Remote controllers issued a destroy command shortly thereafter, with the resulting debris falling in a remote part of the ocean near the Philippines.

On board the rocket was the advanced Earth observation satellite ALOS-3, also known as “DAICHI-3”, which was destroyed in the self-destruction. It’s also not entirely clear what went wrong, but JAXA said there will be a full investigation.

This was JAXA’s second attempt to launch the H3. On February 17, an outage was reported at T-0 as a result of “transient fluctuations” in communication and power lines during electrical separation. It’s unclear if the two incidents are related, but it seems unlikely.

The base LE-9 engines featured an expander bleed cycle, an innovation that produced greater thrust and performance at the expense of fuel efficiency. These engines seem to perform well, but the same cannot be said for the second stage, which is powered by a lone LE-5 engine.

This engine dates back over 20 years but has been upgraded for the H3. “The LE-5B-3 second stage engine for the H3 launch vehicle is an improved version of the current LE-5B-2 engine, aiming to improve performance and reduce product cost while keeping development costs and development risk to a minimum,” wrote JAXA in a 2017 H3 development report. The upcoming investigation will undoubtedly look at this engine and all related support systems.

Ten years in the making, the H3 is positioned as Japan’s next flagship rocket and a way for the country to “permanently have access to space.” The 207-foot-tall (63-meter) rocket, a joint effort between JAXA and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, was approved in 2013 and is intended to replace Japan’s H-IIA and H-IIB missiles.

Once operational, JAXA will use the $1.5 billion rocket to deliver satellites and other payloads into space, which it plans to do twice a year for the next 20 years. Japan also plans to use the launch vehicle to transport cargo to the lunar environment, specifically to help build the planned Gateway space station around the moon.

The program was years behind schedule as a result of development delays related to the LE-9 engine. We now await the results of the investigation in hopes of learning what went wrong and when the H3 can fly again.

This is breaking news. Be sure to check back as we’ll update this article as we learn more.

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