Epsilon rocket launch called off on the pad at last minute

Kyodo

The launch of a new type of solid-fuel rocket carrying the world’s first space telescope for observing planets was scrubbed at the last minute Tuesday.

An abnormality in the position of the Epsilon rocket was detected 19 seconds before the planned liftoff, which automatically halted the countdown, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

It would have been the first launch of a new type of rocket in Japan since the first H-IIA rocket was launched in 2001.

The Epsilon, loaded with the SPRINT-A spectroscopic planet observatory telescope, was to lift off from the Uchinoura Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture at 1:45 p.m.

It was not immediately known when the launch would be rescheduled. But Ichita Yamamoto, state minster for space policy, urged the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency to launch the three-stage Epsilon “as early as possible after conducting thorough investigations.”

Industry watchers say the latest rocket, equipped with artificial intelligence and built at a lower cost than usual, may have the potential to shape future global standards in rocket launches.

The three-stage Epsilon — which is 24.4 meters long, 2.6 meters in diameter and weighs 91 tons — is a successor to the M-5 rocket that was retired in 2006 after it sent up probe vehicles such as Hayabusa.

The Epsilon is about half the size of the H-IIA, which is liquid-fueled and 53 meters in length.

About an hour after launch, the Epsilon was set to spin off the SPRINT-A at an altitude of around 1,000 km, JAXA said.

“We’re sorry we couldn’t meet the expectations of Japanese citizens, relevant organizations and companies that supported us,” JAXA President Naoki Okumura said at a press conference.

SPRINT-A is the world’s first space telescope for remote observation of planets including Venus, Mars and Jupiter, from its orbit around Earth, JAXA said.

The rocket was originally scheduled to be launched last Thursday but it was postponed until Tuesday after faulty wiring in communications equipment was detected earlier this month.

Yamamoto, who became the first minister in charge of space policy to visit the space center since the establishment of JAXA, said the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attaches great emphasis on promoting space development.

“Japan must succeed in the launch of this rocket featuring our own solid-fuel technology,” he said.

Epsilon’s AI allows autonomous checks by the rocket and a function called “mobile launch control” that reduces the number of workers usually involved in the launch.

The time needed to assemble the rocket and launch it was also shortened to about one week, one-sixth of the usual period, according to the space agency.

JAXA officials have said the cost of developing the new rocket has been reduced partly because of the use of the H-IIA rocket’s solid booster for the new rocket’s first stage.

The agency has halved the launching cost to about ¥5.3 billion compared with the H-IIA and aims to lower it further to ¥3 billion, or less than half that of the M-5.