JAXA's new H3 rocket fails first launch attempt in explosive fashion

The H3 rocket's second-stage engine failed to ignite, leading to a manual self destruct.
Chris Young
JAXA's H3 rocket at launch.
JAXA's H3 rocket at launch.

JAXA / YouTube 

Japan's first launch of its new medium-lift rocket failed.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) was forced to perform a controlled explosion shortly after launching the 57-meter (187 ft) tall H3 rocket, Japan's first new rocket model in three decades.

The rocket's second-stage engine did not ignite as planned, leading to the controlled explosion and launch failure shortly after liftoff. The launch failure will be a heavy blow to Japan's attempts to compete with SpaceX.

Japan's failed H3 rocket debut mission

Japan's new H3 rocket initially launched without any issues from Tanegashima Space Center on Monday, March 6, 8:37 pm EST (10:37 am local time on March 7). The launch vehicle successfully reached space, but that's where the problem arose.

Once in space, the rocket's second-stage engine failed to ignite, meaning mission officials were forced to manually destroy the rocket roughly 14 minutes into the mission to avoid a potentially dangerous reentry. According to JAXA, any debris will have fallen into the ocean east of the Philippines.

"It was decided the rocket could not complete its mission, so the destruct command was sent," JAXA said in a statement.

The failed mission is a significant setback for Japan's rocket industry, especially as it came shortly after an aborted H3 launch last month. Japan's Science and Technology Minister Keiko Nagaoka stated that the government had convened a task force to investigate the failure.

Japan aims to compete with SpaceX

Japan's H3 rocket was carrying a disaster management land observation satellite called ALOS-3, also equipped with an experimental sensor to detect ballistic missile launches.

"The H3 is extremely important to ensure our access to space and to ensure we are competitive," JAXA President Hiroshi Yamakawa told journalists at a conference, per a Reuters report. He confirmed that JAXA still plans to proceed with future H3 launches after the investigation.

The H3 rocket was built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd (MHI) and was designed to reduce the cost per launch to compete with SpaceX's dominant workhorse Falcon 9 rocket. The H3 launch vehicle is powered by a lower-cost engine that's partially 3D printed and is intended to launch satellites to orbit and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).

A report published in September by the Center for Strategic and International Studies showed that the cost of a Falcon 9 launch to low Earth orbit was roughly $2,600 per kilogram, while the equivalent price for H3's predecessor, the H-II, stood at $10,500.

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