SS-520 rocket

An SS-520 rocket in an undated file photo from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.


Japan loses another spacecraft

Japan's troubled space efforts suffered another setback today with the aborted launch of a tiny rocket intended to put a microsatellite into orbit.

The rocket lifted off successfully at 8:33 a.m. Japan time and was on a normal flight path. But ground controllers for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) canceled ignition of the rocket's second stage because the craft stopped sending telemetry data shortly after liftoff, according to an agency press release. The craft then plunged into the ocean southeast of JAXA's Uchinoura Space Center, on Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands.

JAXA's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) built the SS-520 launch vehicle—which was 10 meters long, had a diameter of 52 centimeters, and weighed 2600 kilograms—using off-the-shelf electronics and a carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer body tube to minimize costs. Primarily a sounding rocket, designed to perform observations during a suborbital flight, the SS-520 could also loft small satellites. This was the rocket's third mission; it was carrying a 3-kilogram microsatellite, developed by a University of Tokyo team to conduct Earth observations for just 1 month before falling back into the atmosphere. At a press conference today, JAXA officials told local reporters that the mission budget was $4.4 million.

This is the latest in a lengthening list of ISAS rocket and satellite failures. Last February, the institute successfully launched the $300 million ASTRO-H x-ray satellite, jointly developed with NASA, only to have the craft break up 5 weeks later. Investigators concluded that ASTRO-H, renamed Hitomi after launch, had suffered multiple spacecraft control malfunctions that they traced back to “insufficient project management oversight of safety, reliability, and satellite safety and system design.” ISAS is currently overhauling mission management to minimize the risk of future failures.

The cause of the SS-520 failure will be investigated, JAXA officials said in today's press conference.