H3 Launch Aborts at T-0

Image: JAXA

Japan has been working to build its new H3 rocket for the past decade. Last night, JAXA attempted to launch it for the first time, but aborted the flight at T-0.

The road to launch: JAXA originally greenlit the H3 rocket in 2013 as a more cost-effective successor of the H2-A, which the Japanese space agency debuted in 2001. H2-A is comparable to the Falcon 9 in terms of mass-to-orbit but costs significantly more to launch, at ~$90M vs. $67M for the SpaceX workhorse.

JAXA contracted Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to build H3, an expendable rocket with similar lift capabilities and target price point of $51M per launch. H3’s maiden flight was initially penciled in for 2020, but Mitsubishi ran into engine testing snags that led to schedule slips.

The aborted debut: Countdown to launch proceeded as planned. At 8:37pm ET, the rocket’s two LE-9 engines on the core stage ignited, but its two solid rocket boosters failed. The agency is now investigating what went wrong.

The rocket was meant to deliver the ALOS-3 satellite to a sun-synchronous orbit for JAXA. ALOS-3, which stands for Advanced Land Observing Satellite-3, carries a sensor with 0.8m resolution to scan regions up to 70 km in width.

A path forward? The commercial launch landscape has changed considerably since Mitsubishi kicked off the H3 program. Falcon 9 has been building flight heritage since 2016, and it’s now the world’s most reliable, frequently flown and reflown rocket. It’s unlikely H3 can outcompete Falcon 9 on price out of the gate, and it’ll be a long time before it can demonstrate comparable reliability.

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