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Japan's new rocket launches space station cargo freighter

Posted: September 10, 2009

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TANEGASHIMA, Japan - The launch of Japan's H-2B rocket Thursday heralded a giant leap forward for the International Space Station, but Japanese officials are hoping the picture-perfect launch continues reverberating through the space world long after its loud rumble fades away.

"We are very pleased with this success," said Keiji Tachikawa, president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now

The 35,000-pound H-2 Transfer Vehicle was tucked inside the H-2B rocket, which also made its maiden flight, for liftoff at 1701:46 GMT (1:01:46 p.m. EDT; 2:01:46 a.m. Friday JST), a rare nighttime launch for Japan.

A pair of hydrogen-burning first stage engines ignited a few seconds before liftoff, ramping up to full power before computers commanded four large solid rocket boosters to light.

Spewing more than 3 million pounds of thrust, the powerful launcher quickly sped away from Launch Pad No. 2 at the Tanegashima spaceport, flying southeast and piercing an enveloping deck of clouds less than 30 seconds later.

The strap-on motors burned out and separated as designed two minutes after liftoff, and the nearly 17-foot diameter widebody first stage completed its job around four minutes later.

The rocket's second stage, largely unchanged from a version used on the smaller H-2A rocket, came to life and burned for more than eight minutes to deliver the HTV payload to a precise injection orbit on its way to the International Space Station.

The HTV was deployed from the launcher about 15 minutes after departing Earth, leaving the automated freighter ready to begin a week of intense testing and other operations to prepare for its arrival at the complex next Thursday.

"This is a tremendous accomplishment," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations.

Those tasks will be carried out by an international team of engineers working in Japan's space station control room in Tsukuba, near Tokyo, and NASA's Mission Control Center in Houston.

"There's still plenty of challenging work ahead, but the teams are ready and prepared," Gerstenmaier said.

Japan's first unpiloted cargo ship is performing well so far, already completing its first few engine firings in its high-speed, high-stakes chase of the International Space Station.

More demonstrations are planned Friday and Saturday to test the HTV's abort procedures if a problem develops late in next week's rendezvous sequence.

At Tanegashima, a narrow strip of land situated off the southwestern coast of the Japanese main islands, Thursday's successful launch put an exclamation point on a year of engine tests, compatability checks and integration to ready the 186-foot-tall H-2B rocket for its first flight.

Best known for its picturesque landscape and natural beauty, the space center is carved into a notch along the southeast corner of Tanegashima Island.

"Standing on the balcony and hearing the ocean, and then seeing the rocket launch is something I'll remember for the rest of my life," Gerstenmaier said in a post-launch press conference.

Officials now hope Tanegashima will be known as one of the world's premier launch sites, Japanese dignitaries said in a post-launch press conference.

The H-2B joins the medium-lift H-2A rocket in JAXA's fleet. In an effort to cut launch costs, the space agency plans to develop a small solid-fueled rocket to replace its retired M-5 launcher in the next few years.

"This is going to add to our lineup of launch vehicles," an official with the Minister of Education, Culture, Science and Technology said.

Japan has long efforted to capture a share of the world's commercial launch services market with little success. Although boasting a 94 percent success record with its H-2A and H-2B rockets, JAXA and its industrial partners have had trouble securing foreign launch contracts.

Rare recent exceptions include deals brokered to launch South Korea's KOMPSAT 3 satellite in 2012 and an agreement with NASA to launch part of the joint Global Precipitation Mission in 2013.

Not only does Japan see Thursday's launch as an opportunity to position itself as a major player in the commercial marketplace, the Asian power also hopes the H-2B rocket and HTV spacecraft technology can applied to a wider range of missions in the future.

Japanese officials openly say the HTV's unique capabilities are a stepping stone to even more ambitious missions, including crewed flights.

"In parallel with this first flight, we're starting consideration of what the next step will be, which includes manned flight for the HTV vehicle," said Hiro Uematsu, a senior engineer for the HTV spacecraft.

But a more realistic dream, at least in the near-term, would be to expand HTV production to support the space station's logistics needs after the space shuttle retires.

Currently pegged at around one unit per year, the construction of HTVs could be doubled if funding becomes available, according to Mike Suffredini, NASA's space station program manager.

It would also take a few years to ramp up production to the higher pace of activity, a lag time that could make that option less desirable.

"This vehicle will play a key role for us in the future with launches about once per year," Gerstenmaier said.

But NASA would prefer to use domestic contractors for fill its cargo needs, which is why the agency tendered contracts with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to build and fly independent commercially-operated supply freighters starting in 2010 and 2011.

Those spacecraft are still months or years from flight. Delays and technical hurdles are to be expected in development of such complex vehicles, Suffredini said.

NASA is filling its remaining space shuttle flights with critical spare parts to give the space station enough supplies to wait out potential delays.

Only visiting vehicles that attach to U.S. modules can deliver the standard supply and payload racks that keep that part of the station running. The Progress and Automated Transfer Vehicle dock to the Russian segment, which features a smaller circular hatch between modules.

The HTV could be the only vehicle capable of providing those supplies after the shuttle retires in late 2010.

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft is slated to conduct its first test flight early next year. The Cygnus ship, which can deliver larger external equipment like the HTV, may not be ready for its demonstration mission until 2011.

Suffredini said as long as one of the U.S. spacecraft is ready close to its target date, there will no gap in cargo capacity.

But a successful conclusion to the HTV's first flight would give officials another option in a business where redundancy is a necessity.