Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Japan's New H3 Rocket Fails First Launch

Two weeks and four days after the first attempt to launch their new heavier lift booster, the H3 was scheduled for Monday night, US East Coast time, Tuesday Japan time.  The first attempt aborted before launch on February 17th (1:37 UTC - the same time as this test) shortly after main engine ignition but before liftoff.  The liquid-fueled main engines ignited but the strap-on solid rocket boosters did not, so the control software shut down the main engines.  Last night's launch cleared that hurdle smoothly but the second stage failed to ignite

In a terse statement on the failure, Japanese space agency JAXA said, "A destruct command has been transmitted to H3 around 10:52 am (Japan Standard Time), because there was no possibility of achieving the mission. We are confirming the situation."

The background of the H3 is that it's an improvement to a line of rockets going back decades, and is a joint task of the JAXA, the Japanese equivalent of NASA, and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI).  Mitsubishi is best known in the US today as the manufacturer of a line of cars and light trucks sold under that brand in the US.  They were the manufacturer of the warplanes for Japan dating back to WWII; the famous Japanese Zero was their product.  I think comparison to NASA and Boeing or any of the early "space 1.0" rocket makers is apt. 

JAXA/MHI has spent about $1.5 billion developing the H3 rocket over the last decade. Much of that was spent in development of their new LE-9 engine, a liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine, for the first stage. The first stage appeared to perform flawlessly. The second-stage (that failed) was powered by the LE-5B, a more established engine.  It hasn't been stated at this point that the failure was in the engine, its controlling hardware, software or something else. 

The major problem with the H3, though, appears to be that it's a design out of time.  This isn't surprising for a design begun 10 years ago, before the regular demonstration of reusability that has led to a complete reordering of the launch services market.  JAXA sought to increase its share of the commercial launch market by building a lower-cost alternative to its current H2-A vehicle to more effectively compete with SpaceX.  Mitsubishi's goal was to sell the H3 at $51 million per launch in its base configuration. This would allow the company to supplement its launches of institutional missions for the Japanese government with commercial satellites.  

You may have seen talk linking the H3 to our Artemis program.  In addition to commercial satellite launches, it's also intended to carry a new unmanned cargo transporter that will deliver supplies and materials to both the International Space Station and the lunar Gateway, the lunar-orbiting first and last stop planned for Artemis.

Frankly, H3 seems to be in trouble just looking at it in this overview.  As the source article at Ars Technica notes:

A fundamental problem with the booster is that, even if it were to fly safely, the H3 rocket has no clear advantages over the Falcon 9, which now has a streak of more than 170 consecutive successful launches. The new H3 rocket is also fully expendable, unlike the Falcon 9 and many newer boosters in development in the United States and China.


The H3 within the first minute after launch.  JAXA photo.


  1. I keep thinking that Kim is shooting rockets over Japan to keep Godzilla at bay because the Japanese can't figure out rockets.

  2. Well, still, more success than New Glenn and the BE4s and Vulcan (so far.) How many Falcons were lost in the testing stage? How many Starship prototypes?

    If Japan can field a disposable launch vehicle at the same cost per kg to orbit as a reusable launch vehicle, then it is comparable to Falcon reusable. And that would allow Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to build a reusable variant, or a recoverable engine section variant.

    Just because it isn't reusable doesn't mean it's not cost effective.

    Sucks that they lost the launch though. Was hoping for better from the Japanese.

    1. Just remember:
      This IS "rocket surgery!"

    2. Yeah. We say, "space is hard" all the time, but it's absolutely true.

      The possibility is still out there that a handful of people at Mitsubishi who knew how to do this have all retired or moved on.

  3. H3 isn't about satellites. It's a IRBM. Keep a eye out for similar efforts by South Korea.