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New Japan rocket launch postponed after troubles

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TOKYO, Japan (Reuters) -- Japan's struggling space program, which has suffered a series of humiliating failures, was hit with a new blow on Wednesday with the announcement it will postpone the first launch of its newest rocket by at least half a year.

The delay is important to ensure a successful launch of Japan's newest domestic rocket, the H-2A, on which the future of the country's space program rests, a spokesman for the quasi-governmental National Space Development Agency (NASDA) said.

"Success is essential," he added. "If we can't succeed at building a trustworthy rocket, none of it is any good."

The launch of the H-2A had been scheduled for February, but it has been postponed until sometime between the beginning of July and the end of September next year.

"Several different kinds of trouble developed at the final engine test, and while these troubles have been dealt with, we decided it was best to proceed prudently with the question of a launch," the spokesman said, declining to provide details.

A number of problems during the rocket's development, including a brief leak of liquid hydrogen during a combustion test in July, also may have played a part in the decision.

In that test, a faulty seal allowed liquid hydrogen to leak briefly from a fuel tank -- a situation that could lead to an explosion.

Japanese media said the final straw may have been traces of erosion detected around parts of the rocket engine.

"Because these problems emerged just at the final test, we decided to play it safe," the spokesman said.

Dashed hopes

The decision could prove a final blow to Japan's dreams of becoming a competitive launch provider with the advent of the H-2A, which was expected to bring the cost of launches into line with those of competitors such as the European Space Agency's Ariane rocket.

Each launch of Japan's previous rocket, the H-2, cost close to 19 billion yen ($172.6 million), about double that of others.

The H-2A had been scheduled to put a satellite into orbit for the European Space Agency on its maiden flight, but this was essentially canceled in September when NASDA said it would not launch a satellite due to safety concerns.

The satellite had already had its launch postponed once, following a mishap in November 1999 when scientists were forced to blow up an H-2 rocket eight minutes after its launch.

A 10 billion yen satellite was lost as a result, and the H-2 programme was abandoned a month later.

Another unsuccessful launch in 1998 cost 60 billion yen.

Japanese media reported that Japan offered to launch the satellite free of charge for the European space authorities if they would be able to use it for data transmission experiments, but European authorities have turning elsewhere.

"They are investigating a number of new launch possibilities and have been since September," the NASDA spokesman said.

Others have made similar decisions.

In May, U.S. satellite maker Hughes Space and Communications, which had agreed to use Japanese rockets to launch 10 satellites, terminated the contracts because it had lost confidence in Japan's space technology.

The space program has long been an expensive Achilles heel for otherwise technologically adept Japan, in part because responsibility for it is divided among five government ministries.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.



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