• Kyodo

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Japan launched a rocket Thursday carrying a Kounotori unmanned cargo vessel, developed by the national space agency, on its final mission to transport supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).

The H-IIB rocket carrying the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Kounotori 9 lifted off at 2:31 a.m. from the remote Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture.

Fifteen minutes later, the Kounotori was detached from the rocket and put into a planned orbit. The cargo vessel, which can hold up to 6 tons of supplies, has been launched successfully in all nine of its missions dating back to 2009.

The launch was the last for both the Kounotori, which means “stork” in Japanese, and the H-IIB rocket, developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd.

“We would like to proceed with each and every task, and round off its final mission with a triumph,” said Keiji Suzuki, a member of the heavy machinery maker’s space program, during a virtual news conference Tuesday.

The cylindrical cargo transporter carrying food, equipment for experiments and other provisions is scheduled to dock at the space station on May 25, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

The space agency and Mitsubishi Heavy took extra precautions so as not to carry the new coronavirus to the island where the launch took place. Tanegashima, which has not yet reported any infections, has a population consisting largely of elderly people, and only limited medical facilities are available.

The on-site staff presence for the launch was reduced by 20 percent by allowing some to work from home. According to Suzuki, staff movements were strictly restricted and food was brought in beforehand, while reporters were denied access to the facility.

Ahead of liftoff, the rocket was illuminated with blue light for about 15 minutes as an expression of gratitude for first responders, such as medical staff, who have been on the front lines in the battle against the virus.

Rocket launches from Tanegashima Space Center usually draw many spectators, but the agency shut down observation sites on the island amid the virus crisis.

Since the U.S. Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, the Kounotori has been the sole cargo vessel capable of carrying large equipment to the ISS.

The Kounotori 9 will capture images of the ISS in its orbit about 400 kilometers above Earth, to test communications technology designed to determine the vessel’s location and status. The data collected will be used by the vessel’s successor, the HTV-X.

After docking with the ISS for a number of weeks, the Kounotori 9 is scheduled to leave the space station carrying unnecessary items and burn up by reentering the atmosphere.

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