CHRISTMAS ISLAND, Kiribati – The successful flight Friday of an unmanned, jet-powered vehicle from this Pacific island is seen as a major step forward in Japan’s plans to develop its own version of a space shuttle.
According to the National Aeronautical Laboratory and National Space Development Agency of Japan, the vehicle flew along a planned route after taking off and was successfully landed by automatic pilot at 5:50 a.m.
The test vehicle climbed to an altitude of 600 meters and landed in autopilot mode on a runway with the help of global positioning system satellites, although the touchdown was a bit bumpy, Japanese space officials said. The flight lasted 9 minutes and 30 seconds.
The test was conducted in the early morning, before seabirds living in southeastern Christmas Island became active. There had been concern that the birds might come in contact with the vehicle.
The successful test was a relief to space officials as it came on the heels of an unsuccessful attempt in Australia in July. The officials pinned the blame for that on a mistake made during the vehicle’s manufacturing process.
The test vehicle measures about 3.8 meters in length and is equipped with a reusable rocket. It is expected to undergo a series of high-speed test flights until the end of October at ever-higher altitudes.
The officials said they ultimately want to have the vehicle fly faster than Mach 0.5 — half the speed of sound, or 610 kph — and land at an approach angle of 25 degrees, a landing angle unimaginable for regular commercial jets.
In the wake of the successful test, engineers are hoping to move on to the next phase of the project by starting work on a next-generation engine, the officials said.
The laboratory and agency are planning to conduct another test in Sweden in the spring, using a different vehicle, the officials said.
If successfully developed, the reusable space shuttle could be used to haul supplies to a space station in orbit and deploy low-orbit satellites.
With development costs likely to be astronomical, however, Japanese space officials are hoping to develop the vehicle in conjunction with their counterparts in Europe and elsewhere. Europe is also exploring the possibility of developing a reusable rocket.
The United States, the pioneer in this field, is considering developing a next-generation space shuttle on its own. Observers say Europe is seeking joint-development partners and that Japan could be one candidate, given its technological prowess and the fact that its vision of the peaceful use of rockets matches that of Europe.
Japan previously worked on developing a space shuttle dubbed the Hope, but the project was frozen due to a lack of funds and other difficulties.