Image: H2-A
Japan's H2-A rocket rises from its pad at the Tanegashima island launch facility. The rocket is due to send a weather and communications satellite into orbit Feb. 24.
updated 2/8/2005 6:41:05 PM ET 2005-02-08T23:41:05

Grounded for more than a year, Japan’s space agency has begun the countdown to launch its domestically built H2-A rocket later this month — a high-stakes move officials hope will reopen the way for everything from putting spy satellites in orbit to moving ahead with ambitious scientific missions.

The launch, scheduled for Feb. 24, is crucial to Japan’s space program.

After five consecutive successes beginning in 2002, an H2-A carrying two spy satellites veered off course shortly after liftoff in November 2003 and was destroyed by mission controllers in a spectacular midair fireball. Officials say a faulty booster caused the failure.

The loss was devastating because the H2-A is the workhorse of Japan’s program. The investigation into the cause of the malfunction put virtually all of this country’s missions on hold.

To make matters worse, it came just a month after rival China put its first man into space, a feat Japan has yet to accomplish.

“The success of the H2-A rocket launch this time will have a huge impact on the Japan’s future space programs,” said Katsuji Koyama, a space science professor at Kyoto University. “Japan understands that, and has moved to pursue a manned space mission as well.”

Final stages of preparation
Officials said Tuesday they are in the final stages of preparation for this month’s launch at Tanegashima, a remote island about 700 miles (1,120 kilometers) southwest of Tokyo. The rocket will carry a multipurpose weather and communications satellite.

“We believe we are now ready,” said Hiroaki Sato, a spokesman for JAXA, Japan’s space agency.

The rocket will carry a replacement for the Himawari 5, a weather observation satellite that stopped working properly in 2004, prompting Japan to rely on a U.S. satellite for weather data. The satellite will also give air traffic controllers the positions of aircraft flying over the ocean.

JAXA has several more launches planned for the year ahead.

Questions linger over where Japan’s space program is headed, however.

Rocket's significance dims
Japan launched its first rocket in 1970, and is one of the very select group of nations that have succeeded in sending a probe to the moon. It is planning the biggest moon mission since the U.S. Apollo project, and sending probes to Venus and Mercury.

Although Japan had long said it wasn’t interested in pursuing manned space flight, the government has now established a Cabinet task force to study the possibility of doing so in the next 20 or 30 years.

The significance of Japan’s H2-A, meanwhile, is dimming.

Though initially hailed as a showcase of Japanese technology and a potential rival to U.S. and European rockets in the commercial launching business, it remains exorbitantly expensive and has yet to carry a commercial payload.

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