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Japan ready to launch new rocket

The H-2A during ground test firing in August, 2000
The H-2A during ground test firing in August, 2000  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- A new Japanese rocket is scheduled to make its inaugural launch on Wednesday. A successful trip into orbit could help improve Japan's position in the commercial space launch industry.

The H-2A was expected to fly into space last week, but an engine valve glitch forced ground controllers to postpone liftoff.

An investigation found that "the malfunction was due to particles generated from the filter in the valve," said the National Space Agency of Japan (NASDA).

"A new cleanness-assured valve was assembled to the launch vehicle and its function was successfully verified," the agency said in a statement.

The new launch time from the Tanegashima Space Center is between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. Japan time (midnight to 5 a.m. EDT).

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The demonstration rocket will fly to a height of 260 kilometers and then, about one-half hour after liftoff, release the second stage and an instrument that will help ground controllers confirm its orbital path. The H-2A will carry a 3-ton imitation satellite rather than a real one.

Japan hopes the more powerful H-2A will improve reliability and allow the nation to make inroads against dominant U.S. and European competitors in the commercial launch business.

The H-2A has a new main engine on the first stage and a more sophisticated second stage than its problem-plagued predecessor, the H-2. Japan scrapped the H-2 rocket after consecutive launch failures in 1998 and 1999. Since then it has focused on the H-2A.

"If they are not successful, there may be a complete reanalysis of their space launch objectives," said Richard Dalbello, executive director of the Satellite Industry Association.

The H-2 failures convinced potential customers to use other launch vehicles. The European Space Agency, for example, decided to send its Artemis experimental communications satellite on an Ariane 5, the newest generation rocket from Arianespace, rather than an H-2.

But nothing is guaranteed in the risky business of space. In July, despite a string of Arianespace launch successes, the rocket failed to deliver the $850 million satellite into the proper orbit.

• Tanegashima Space Center
• National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA)
• NASA Home Page
• Arianespace

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