Japan marks second successful launch of H3 rocket after last year's failure

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A second test model of H3 rocket lift off from the launching pad at Tanegashima Space Center on the southwestern island of Tanegashima, Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan February 17, 2024, in this photo taken by Kyodo. — Reuters
A second test model of H3 rocket lift off from the launching pad at Tanegashima Space Center on the southwestern island of Tanegashima, Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan February 17, 2024, in this photo taken by Kyodo. — Reuters

Japan successfully launched its new H3 flagship rocket on Saturday, putting its satellite programme back on track after several setbacks, including the failure of its inaugural flight last year.

The launch marks a second consecutive win for Japan's Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) after its moon lander, Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (Slim), achieved a "pinpoint" touchdown last month, Al Jazeera reported.

A relatively small player in space by the number of launches, Japan is seeking to revitalise its programme as it partners with its ally, the United States, to counter China.

The H3 had a "successful liftoff" at 22:00 GMT and was "on course" with its engines properly working, Jaxa said in a live broadcast that showed scientists clapping and hugging each other at the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan.

All its payloads — two microsatellites and a dummy satellite — were successfully released, the agency later said. The H3 will replace the two-decade-old H-IIA.

Jaxa and primary contractor Mitsubishi Heavy Industries hope that the lower costs and greater payload capacity of the 297ft H3 rocket will win global launch orders.

A second test model of H3 rocket rises into the air after blasting off from the launching pad at Tanegashima Space Center while people look on, on the southwestern island of Tanegashima, Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan February 17, 2024, in this photo taken by Kyodo. — Reuters
A second test model of H3 rocket rises into the air after blasting off from the launching pad at Tanegashima Space Center while people look on, on the southwestern island of Tanegashima, Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan February 17, 2024, in this photo taken by Kyodo. — Reuters

The rocket's design, which uses simpler structures and automotive-grade electronics, could cost as low as ¥5 billion. By comparison, the H-IIA costs about ¥10 billion per launch.

"This is really good. It's taken some time for the program to get to this point but with this launch, they will be fielding inquiries from around the world," said Ko Ogasawara, a professor at the Tokyo University of Science.

The H3's first flight in March ended with ground control destroying the rocket 14 minutes after liftoff because its second-stage engine failed to ignite. Jaxa listed three possible electrical faults in a review released in October but could not identify the direct cause.

The Japanese government plans to launch 20 satellites and probes using H3 rockets by 2030.

Satellite launch demands have skyrocketed thanks to the rise of affordable commercial vehicles such as SpaceX's reusable Falcon 9 and several new rockets are being tested this year.