by Nicholas Takahashi
Japan will be the latest country to aim for the moon later this week, just days after a Russian spacecraft hit the lunar surface and India’s Chandrayaan-3 landed near the south pole.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) H2-A rocket is scheduled to lift off from the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan on Sunday morning, carrying an advanced imaging satellite and a lightweight lander that is expected to touch down on the Moon in January or February.
The success could provide the push JAXA desperately needs to rebuild its damaged reputation after a series of costly failures last year. These include several launch failures that derailed both the launch of the next generation of rockets and the agency’s first attempt at launching commercial satellites.
Those blunders put additional pressure on JAXA to get it right this time, said Jiro Kasahara, a professor in Nagoya University’s Department of Aerospace Engineering.
“Landing on a moving celestial object is an incredibly important technique to master,” he said. While other space agencies have recovered from failed attempts, it will be tough for JAXA to bounce back from faltering. Kasahara said, “Japan only has one chance at this.”
JAXA’s troubles began last October, when it aborted the sixth launch of its Epsilon rocket mid-flight. The rocket was carrying two satellites from JAXA’s first commercial contracts, part of an effort to meet growing demand in the private sector.
It was the first major failure of a Japanese rocket since 2003, and the JAXA investigation blamed a faulty part that prevented the rocket from staying upright to reach orbit.
In November, JAXA revealed that 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 boosters halted the rocket. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. spent nearly a decade working on the H3, a single-use rocket intended 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. While airborne, the operators sent a self-destruct code, causing the vehicle and the satellite it was carrying to crash into the Philippine Sea.
And then in July, the engine of the Epsilon S (the seventh version of the rocket) exploded during a ground test, causing a plume of flames and smoke to engulf a facility in northern Japan’s Akita Prefecture. Although no injuries were reported, the incident was a blow not only to the Epsilon series but also to the H3, as both rockets use the same new solid rocket booster.
“Considering other recent incidents, we are trying to do whatever we can to rectify the situation,” JAXA director Hiroshi Yamakawa said at a press briefing after the accident.
The agency told a government panel on August 23 that JAXA had narrowed down the possible causes of the H3’s failure to spark plugs or a control unit in the second-stage engine. The agency can now take steps to prevent its recurrence during the next phase. The H3 launch attempt is scheduled before the end of the current fiscal year, in March 2024.
“Before this year, Japanese rockets were performing well – maybe too well – which may have led to some mistakes,” said Shinichi Kimura, director of the Research Center for Space System Innovation at Tokyo University of Science. He said that this Sunday’s launch JAXA provides. An opportunity to benefit from those painful lessons.
“It is an important mission both scientifically and symbolically,” he said.
Kimura and Kasahara are consultants to the government panel investigating the H3 malfunction.
As Japanese entrepreneurs try to build their space startups, they’re getting some support from JAXA. The agency announced in April that it would invest in Space Walker Inc., the first private-sector rocket company to receive JAXA funding, and the agency plans to support more space businesses.
The most high-profile company like that suffered a setback 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 incorrectly detected the edge of a crater. It then ran out of fuel and began a rapid descent during final approach.
iSpace said it would launch its second mission in early 2024 as originally planned.
JAXA’s H2-A, the agency’s most reliable rocket, which has failed in only one of 42 launches since 2001, will carry the Small Lander, or SLIM, to probe the Moon if it launches on Sunday. Less than 3 meters (9.8 feet) tall, the lander could pave the way for other probes with higher navigational accuracy.
The rocket will also carry the X-ray Imaging and Spectroscopy mission, or XRISM, a satellite that will help scientists observe plasma in stars and galaxies.