April 21, 2024

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Japan's Space One Kairos rocket exploded just seconds into its inaugural flight

Japan's Space One Kairos rocket exploded just seconds into its inaugural flight

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A Japanese solid-fuel rocket exploded just seconds after its inaugural launch, in a major setback for the country's quest for space, as private company Space One attempts to become the first company in the country to put a satellite into orbit.

The 59-foot-tall Kairos spacecraft lifted off at 11:01 a.m. on the mountainous Kii Peninsula in western Japan on Wednesday.

Five seconds after Kairos left the launch pad, the middle of the rocket emitted a large explosion, and the unmanned vehicle turned into a ball of fire and smoke.

Japan's Space One's Kairos rocket exploded seconds after launch during its inaugural mission on March 13, 2024. Via Reuters

Kairos, or the Kiei-based Advanced and Prompt Missile System, carried an experimental government satellite that would have temporarily replaced intelligence satellites if it fell out of orbit.

Space One said it “terminated the flight” after the launch and is investigating the flight data.

Debris from the explosion eventually fell into the mountain and sea below.

Shuhei Kishimoto, governor of Wakayama Local Government, after officials briefed him on the matter, said there was a problem that led to the operation of the autonomous flight termination system.

Kishimoto did not explain the problem that led to the activation of the flight termination system.

Kairos is designed and built to be highly automated, including a flight termination system.

A crew of about a dozen workers was required to operate the nearby launch control center.

There were no reports of injuries near the launch site, and the fire that broke out as a result of the explosion was extinguished.

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Space One had planned the launch on Saturday but postponed it after a ship entered a nearby marine restricted zone. AFPTV/AFP via Getty Images
Space One said the launch process is highly automated and requires approximately ten employees at the ground control center. AP

Space One was created in 2018 through the merger of several companies, including Canon Electronics, engineering firm IHI, and the state-backed Development Bank of Japan.

The company was founded as an “easy and affordable” space launch provider to get customers' businesses into space, According to its website.

“With our dedicated launch and delivery site, we will reduce the cost of putting satellites into orbit and help expand the space business,” the company's mission statement reads.

Space One said the flight “stopped” after the launch at the tip of the mountainous Kii Peninsula in western Japan, and that it was investigating the situation. AP
The missile explosion was filmed from a viewing area behind the mountains in Kushimoto, Wakayama Prefecture, on Wednesday. AP

The rocket consists of three stages of solid-propellant engines and a liquid-fueled after-propellant engine, and attempts to carry payloads of up to 250 kg to low Earth orbit.

The missile was scheduled to be launched last Saturday, but was postponed to Wednesday due to a ship entering the restricted zone in the nearby sea.

Spaceport Kii is located in Kushimoto, Wakayama Prefecture, about 136 miles southeast of Osaka.

Space One's aggressive, low-cost plans include the “shortest launch” and “the world's highest launch tempo (more than 20 launches per year).”

Smoke rises from the launch site after the failed launch on March 13, 2024. AP
Onlookers watch smoke rising from the Space One launch pad on the tip of the Kii Peninsula on March 13, 2024. Via Reuters

Space One did not disclose Kairos launch costs, but the company's CEO Kozo Abe said it was “competitive enough” against its American rival Rocket Lab.

Rocket Lab has launched more than 40 small electronic rockets from New Zealand since 2017 at a cost of about $7 million per flight.

Wednesday's explosion is the latest unfortunate accident to hit Japan's relatively nascent space ambitions.

Last July, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA) Epsilon S engine exploded one minute into a second-stage engine test.

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The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's H-3 medium-lift rocket was ordered to self-destruct on its maiden flight last March when its second stage engine did not ignite as planned.

The H-3 is scheduled to deliver 20 satellites and probes into space by 2030.

The space agency has had its share of victories, landing its first lunar rover on the moon's surface on January 13, but it took more than a month to reconnect after it flipped over on landing.

When the Lunar Exploration Intelligent Lander (SLIM) touched down on the lunar surface on January 13, Japan became the fifth country to place a lander on the lunar surface.

With mail wires.

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