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Japan's new rocket soars on maiden flight

The H-2A rocket shortly after liftoff
The H-2A rocket shortly after liftoff  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- Following months of setbacks, a new Japanese rocket carrying a demonstration satellite roared into orbit on Wednesday, a rare triumph for a troubled space program that could improve Japan's prospects in the commercial launch industry.

Delayed four hours so technicians could check a fuel pipe monitor, the H-2A launch vehicle then blasted into the afternoon skies from the Tanegashima Space Center, a small island complex about 1,000 kilometers south of Tokyo.

Japan hopes that the H-2A, the successor to the problem-plagued H2, will allow the nation to make inroads against dominant European and U.S. competitors in the commercial launch business.

Technical problems postponed the maiden voyage of the new rocket in February and again last week. But the $71 million vehicle performed well on Wednesday, flying to an altitude of about 270 kilometers where it dropped off a three-ton dummy satellite into orbit, according to Japan's space agency.

"The launch vehicle successfully lifted off ... and the separation of the (demonstration payload) was confirmed about 39 minutes and 47 seconds after the lift-off," the National Space Development Agency said in a statement.

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NASDA launched Japan's first H-2 in 1994. But the rocket program was scrapped after consecutive launch failures in 1998 and 1999. In the latter case, the first-stage engine malfunctioned, prompting ground controllers to destroy the rocket and its $83 million satellite payload.

NASDA, beset by budget cuts and reeling from the loss of a $710 million launch contract with Hughes Space and Communications in 2000, is optimistic about the future of the H-2A.

Created specifically for commercial use, the 53-meter rocket uses fewer parts and costs half as much as its predecessor. The H-2A can carry a four-ton payload into orbit. NASDA hopes to increase the capacity to 7.5 tons within two years.

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

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