The maiden flight of Tokyo's new launcher concludes with the self-destruction of the rocket and the satellite it was carrying

Japan causes assisted death of its new H3 space transport vector

photo_camera PHOTO/JAXA - The inability to bring the Japanese H3 launcher back on its descent trajectory forced the launch director to order it to self-destruct before it came to pose a hazard

Japan's national pride in a job well done has been badly wounded by the resounding failure of the maiden flight of its powerful new space vector, the H3.  

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's government had hoped to enter the narrow international commercial launch services market with the H3. But it will not be able to do so until the causes of the disaster that has taken the new launcher by surprise are identified and resolved, which means delays of 6 to 24 months. 

At 574 tonnes, 63 metres high - almost twice the length of a Boeing 737-400 passenger jet, more than 5 metres in diameter and packed with advanced technology, the wreckage of the slender, brand new Japanese H3 rocket lies on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of kilometres east of the Philippines.


They are submerged along with the debris of the important and expensive 3-tonne Japanese electro-optical observation satellite Daichi-3 or ALOS-3 (Advanced Land Observing Satellite-3) that it was carrying. A pity, because if the propulsion engines had worked as planned, it would have been deployed at an altitude of 675 kilometres on 7 March and would not now be in pieces at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.  

In addition to the loss of a 0.8-metre resolution device like ALOS-3 - valued at some $280 million - there is also the more than $50 million cost of firing the H3. But there are other frustrations. Tokyo's space technology has been called into question and the reliability of the H3 has suffered a negative impact on a global scale, the restitution of which requires the discipline and craftsmanship of Japan's meticulous engineers to come to the fore.  

The tragedy has not prevented, moments after the disaster, the president of the Japan Space Exploration Agency (JAXA), 58-year-old Professor Hiroshi Yamakawa, who has headed the organisation since April 2018, from coming forward to apologise to his compatriots for the failed H3 launch.

Everything worked fine at the beginning

Yamakawa also announced the formation of a Commission of Inquiry "to determine the cause of the failure and restore the rocket's credibility", he told a press conference after the accident. Science Minister Keiko Nagaoka described the incident as "extremely regrettable" and apologised "for not meeting the expectations of the public and the parties involved". 

Designed to cut costs and compete with the future European Ariane 6 and US Vulcan, the H3 should become Japan's space technology giant of the 21st century. A non-recoverable launcher comprising two propulsion stages, it is the result of more than a decade of cooperation between JAXA and the giant Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, one of the largest business units of the large industrial corporation Mitsubishi, which is acting as prime contractor for the project. 

The H3 is equipped with two powerful new cryogenic rocket engines named LE-9 and LE-5B-3 powered by liquid hydrogen and oxygen. Their development has been a headache for Japanese engineers, involving several years of delays and cost overruns, only for one of them to be the cause of the disaster of what "should be Japan's flagship in space," Yamakawa reiterated.


The countdown to the launch of the H3 on 7 March went smoothly and liftoff from the Tanegashima Space Centre took place at 10:37:55 local time, 02:37:55 in the early hours of the same day in Spanish peninsular time. The two LE-9 rocket engines of the first stage operated as scheduled, as did the two solid fuel boosters attached to the lower sides, which detached when the rocket was at 45 kilometres altitude and developing a velocity of 6,800 km/h. The only LE-5 engine in the first stage, however, was the only LE-9 engine in the first stage. 

However, the single LE-5B-3 engine on the second stage, the one responsible for taking over from the two LE-9s and continuing to power what was left of the H3 rocket, failed to ignite when it was supposed to, five minutes into the flight. At the Takesaki Control Centre at the Tanegashima base itself, where the mission is monitored and flight safety is ensured, all the alarm bells rang.

But in the end, an engine was the culprit

The technicians sent repeated telecommands to activate the engine. Their attempts were unsuccessful and they watched as the telemetry indicated that the H3 reached 640 kilometres altitude and was on a downward trajectory. Unable to solve the problem and re-route the launcher with the satellite still locked into its final orbit, the launch director, 14 minutes after liftoff, ordered the H3 to self-destruct. And... plufff, launcher and satellite smashed to smithereens!

One of the JAXA managers most affected by the consequences of the disaster, if not the most, is the project manager and father of the H3, engineer Masashi Okada, whose motto is "hurry up slowly". Okada and his team have made every effort to ensure the success of the first flight, but have failed to do so for reasons that are under investigation. 


An additional unfortunate factor is transporting an expensive satellite on a maiden liftoff. Several Spanish space sector executives consulted consider it "recklessness, a mortal sin". The reasonable thing to do on the first flights is to include one or more experimental or simulated payloads which, in the event of an accident, do not represent a major loss.  

The H3 disaster comes five months after the failed sixth flight of Japan's small Epsilon launcher on 12 October last year. The four-stage launcher was carrying nine satellites weighing a total of 110 kilos. But the ignition of the third stage failed and the self-destruct system also had to be activated. 


The H3 was designed and developed to take over from Japan's veteran H-IIA and H-IIB rockets, the former costing around $90 million per launch and the latter around $113 million. The H-IIA is Japan's veteran launcher. Its first flight dates back to August 2001, it has been fired 46 times and only one, in 2003, has been a failure. It can deliver up to 15 tonnes into low orbit and has four missions scheduled before it is decommissioned, two in 2023 and two in 2024.

The H-IIB first flew in September 2009 and has only performed nine liftoffs, the last in May 2020. It was developed to carry 16.5 tonnes to orbit Japan's HTV automated resupply spacecraft to the International Space Station.