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Japan is next country to shoot for Moon after India and Russia missions

As Japanese entrepreneurs try to build their space startups, they're getting some support from JAXA

Mission to Moon

Mission to Moon

By Nicholas Takahashi

Japan will be the latest country to aim for the moon this weekend, just days after a Russian spacecraft collided with the lunar surface and India’s Chandrayaan-3 landed near its south pole.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) H2-A rocket is scheduled to take off on Sunday morning from Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan, carrying an advanced imaging satellite and a lightweight lander expected to touch down on the moon in January or February.

Success could provide the thrust JAXA badly needs to begin rebuilding its battered reputation after a series of costly setbacks over the past year. They include several launch failures that derailed both the introduction of a next-generation rocket and the agency’s first attempt to launch commercial satellites.

Those blunders put additional pressure on JAXA to get it right this time, said Jiro Kasahara, a professor at Nagoya University’s Department of Aerospace Engineering. 

“Landing on a moving celestial body is an incredibly important technology to master,” he said. While other space agencies have recovered from failed attempts, JAXA would have a difficult time bouncing back should it stumble again. “Japan only has one shot at this,” Kasahara said. 

Launch Failures
JAXA’s woes began in October last year, when it abandoned the sixth launch of its Epsilon rocket mid-flight. The rocket was carrying two satellites from JAXA’s first commercial contracts, part of an attempt to meet growing demand in the private sector. 

It was the first major failure of a Japanese rocket since 2003, and a JAXA inquiry blamed a faulty part that prevented the rocket from staying upright to reach orbit.

In November, JAXA revealed a research team had falsified large amounts of data collected during an experiment simulating life on the International Space Station.

In February, the agency postponed the inaugural launch of the H3, JAXA’s successor to the H2-A, after a system malfunction between its main engine and side booster kept the rocket grounded. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. spent almost a decade working on the H3, a single-use rocket meant to provide a cheaper, more reliable alternative to competitors such as SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9.

A second attempt in early March ended far more dramatically after the rocket’s second-stage engine failed to ignite. Operators sent a self-destruct code once it was up in the air, sending the craft and the satellite it carried plummeting into the Philippine Sea.

And then in July, the engine of an Epsilon S (the rocket’s seventh iteration) exploded during a ground test, causing flames and a pillar of smoke to consume a facility in northern Japan’s Akita Prefecture. While no injuries were reported, the incident was a setback not only for the Epsilon series but for the H3 as well, as both rockets use the same new solid rocket booster.

“Considering other recent events, we’re looking to do anything we can to improve the situation,” JAXA Director Hiroshi Yamakawa said at a press briefing after the accident.

JAXA has narrowed the potential causes of the H3’s failure down to a spark plug or a control unit in the second-stage engine, the agency told a government panel on Aug. 23. The agency can now take steps to prevent a repeat during the next H3 launch attempt, scheduled before the end of the current fiscal year in March 2024.

“Before this year, Japanese rockets had been doing well — perhaps too well — which may have led to certain oversights,” said Shinichi Kimura, director of the Tokyo University of Science’s Research Center for Space System Innovation, adding that this Sunday’s launch provides JAXA an opportunity to gain from those painful lessons.

“It’s an important mission, both scientifically and symbolically,” he said.

Kimura and Kasahara are advisors to the government panel investigating the H3’s malfunctions.

Startup Support
As Japanese entrepreneurs try to build their space startups, they’re getting some support from JAXA. The agency announced in April it would invest in Space Walker Inc., the first private-sector rocket company to receive JAXA funding, and the agency plans on supporting more space businesses.

The highest-profile company of that ilk had a setback of its own earlier this year. Tokyo-based Ispace Inc.’s Hakuto-R lander was moments away from realizing the country’s first moon landing in April, but lost contact with mission control after faulty telemetry caused the craft to misjudge the edge of a crater. It then ran out of fuel and began to free fall during its final approach. 

Ispace said it will launch its second mission in early 2024 as originally planned.

JAXA’s H2-A, the agency’s most reliable rocket with just one failure out of 42 launches since 2001, will be carrying the Small Lander for Investigating Moon, or SLIM, if it launches on Sunday. Standing less than 3 meters (9.8 feet) tall, the lander could pave the way for other probes with high navigational accuracy.

The rocket will also be carrying the X-Ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission, or XRISM, a satellite that will help scientists observe plasma in stars and galaxies.

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First Published: Aug 25 2023 | 6:51 AM IST

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