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Japan’s efforts to cut the cost of accessing space and compete with Elon Musk’s SpaceX took a major setback on Tuesday, March 7, 2023, when its new medium-lift rocket failed on its debut flight. The 57-meter H3 rocket, Japan’s first new model in three decades, was launched from the Tanegashima spaceport but its second-stage engine failed to ignite, forcing mission officials to manually destroy the vehicle 14 minutes into the flight.

The H3 was carrying the ALOS-3, a disaster management land observation satellite, which was also equipped with an experimental infrared sensor designed to detect North Korean ballistic missile launches. Science and Technology Minister Keiko Nagaoka said in a statement that the government had established a task force to investigate the “very regrettable” failure.

The failure is a serious blow to Japan’s space program as it had hoped to cut the cost of accessing space and compete with Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The H3 was built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd (MHI) and was estimated to cost half that of its predecessor, the H-II, which would have helped it win business in a global launch market. The cost of a Falcon 9 launch to low Earth orbit is $2,600 per kilogramme, whereas the equivalent price tag for the H-II is $10,500, according to a report published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The H3 was designed to lift government and commercial satellites into Earth orbit and ferry supplies to the International Space Station. As part of Japan’s deepening cooperation with the United States in space, it was also eventually expected to carry cargo to the Gateway lunar space station that U.S. space agency NASA plans to build as part of its programme to return people to the moon, including Japanese astronauts.

The failure of the H3 rocket to launch successfully will have a serious impact on Japan’s future space policy, space business and technological competitiveness, says Hirotaka Watanabe, a professor at Osaka University with expertise in space policy. Nonetheless, JAXA President Hiroshi Yamakawa told reporters that JAXA’s goal of fielding a competitive launcher remains unchanged. MHI has said that it is confirming the situation surrounding the rocket with JAXA and does not have an immediate comment.

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