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Japan's New H3 Rocket Forced to Self-Destruct During Inaugural Launch

Ground controllers had to destroy the vehicle after its second stage engine failed to ignite, in what's a frustrating setback for Japan's space agency.

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The H3 rocket left the pad but was destroyed shortly after first stage separation.
Gif: JAXA/Gizmodo

Space is hard—even in 2023. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, instead of celebrating the launch of its new H3 rocket, is now trying to figure out what went wrong during Monday’s failed flight.

The two-stage H3 rocket left the pad on schedule, rising into the sky at 8:37 p.m. ET on March 6 from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan. It was only after first stage separation that things started to go wrong, with ground controllers saying they weren’t able to confirm second stage engine ignition. Controllers then made the decision to engage the rocket’s flight termination system, saying “there was no possibility of achieving the mission.” The destruct command was transmitted at 8:52 p.m. ET, according to JAXA.


The launch had been going well prior to the anomaly, with the solid rocket boosters separating roughly two minutes into the mission and the first stage fulfilling its lifting duties prior to shut down and separation near the five minute mark. The rocket had been flying in a southerly direction in an attempt to enter a polar orbit. The second stage was supposed to kick in at the 5:16 mark of the mission but never did so, making it impossible for the vehicle to reach orbit; the second stage got no higher than about 400 miles (630 kilometers), according to data displayed during JAXA’s live broadcast. Range controllers issued the destruct command shortly thereafter, with the resulting debris falling onto a remote part of the ocean near the Philippines.


Aboard the rocket was the ALOS-3 advanced Earth observation satellite, also known as “DAICHI-3,” which was destroyed as a result of the self-destruct. Beyond this, it’s not entirely clear what went wrong, but JAXA did say there will be a full investigation.

This was JAXA’s second attempt at launching H3. On February 17, an abort was called at T-0 as the result of “transient fluctuations” in the communication and power lines during electrical separation. It’s not immediately clear if there’s a connection between the two incidents, but it seems unlikely.

The LE-9 main engines feature an expander bleed cycle, an innovation that produces greater thrust and performance at the expense of fuel efficiency. These engines appeared to perform well, but the same cannot be said for the second stage, which is powered by a lone LE-5 engine.

This engine dates back more than 20 years, but was upgraded for H3. “The second-stage LE-5B-3 engine for the H3 launch vehicle is an improved version from the current LE-5B-2 engine, aiming at improving the performance and reducing the product cost while keeping the development cost and the development risk to a minimum,” JAXA wrote in a 2017 H3 development report. The pending investigation will undoubtedly look into this engine and all related support systems.

Related article: What to Know About the H3 Rocket, Japan’s Ticket to the Moon

Ten years in the making, H3 is being positioned as Japan’s next flagship rocket and a way for the country to “continuously have access to space.” The 207-foot-tall (63 meters) rocket, a collaboration between JAXA and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, was approved in 2013 and is meant to replace Japan’s H-IIA and H-IIB rockets.


Once operational, JAXA will use the $1.5 billion rocket to deliver satellites and other payloads to space, which it plans to do twice per year for the next 20 years. Japan is also planning to use the launch vehicle to shuttle cargo to the lunar environment, specifically to assist in the construction of the planned Gateway space station around the Moon.

The program is years behind schedule as a result of developmental delays having to do with the LE-9 engine. We now await the results of the investigation in hopes of learning what went wrong and when H3 might fly again.


This is a breaking news story. Be sure to check back as we’ll be updating this article as we learn more.