Japan's first space cargo ship soared into orbit Thursday to begin its maiden cruise to the International Space Station.
The inaugural H-2 Transfer Vehicle (HTV-1) blazed into a predawn sky above its seaside launch pad at the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan, where the local time was 2:01 a.m. Friday at the time of liftoff. It was still Thursday in the United States, where NASA officials at space station Mission Control in Houston and other centers monitored the launch.
The launch occurred at 1:01 p.m. EDT, just hours before the planned evening landing of NASA's space shuttle Discovery and a crew of seven astronauts in Florida. The shuttle is returning from its own delivery mission, but its touchdown was postponed from Thursday to Friday at the earliest.
"HTV-1 is opening up new horizons for JAXA's undertaking of human spaceflight," Masazumi Miyake, deputy director of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Houston office, said before launch. "I like to say that JAXA is now entering a new era."
Built for JAXA, HTV blasted off atop a brand new H-2B rocket, the country's most powerful booster to date. About 15 minutes after liftoff, the cargo ship separated from the rocket's second stage and began the weeklong trek to the space station.
"HTV separation!" JAXA's Mission Control reported in a broadcast as applause rang out.
If all goes well, the cargo ship should arrive at the orbiting laboratory on Sept. 17 after a series of rendezvous and abort system tests.
Japan's HTV spacecraft is about 33 feet (10 meters) long, 14 feet (4.4 meters) wide and designed to haul up to six tons of supplies to the space station. It is covered in solar panels for power and designed to fly on the equally new H-2B booster rocket, which is derived from Japan's workhorse H-2A rocket family.
Japan’s space firsts
The $220 million HTV spacecraft has been in development in Japan since 1997, and JAXA has spent about $680 million overall to bring it to reality, the agency's officials have said. It is the latest in a series of international cargo ships from Russia and Europe that haul vital supplies to the space station.
"It's an amazing vehicle, and it's a pleasure to have it in the fleet," said Mike Suffredini, NASA's space station program manager.
Suffredini said there are a number of spaceflight firsts that come with Japan's HTV. It is the first vehicle since NASA's space shuttle that can haul supplies and equipment for both the inside and exterior of the space station.
The HTV is also the first space freighter to fly to the American side of the space station and the first one not designed to dock itself at the station. Instead, an astronaut inside the orbiting lab will grab the 16.5-ton spacecraft using the station's robotic arm. That capability, NASA officials said, is vital since future commercial cargo ships are expected to be grappled in the same way.
The cargo ship is Japan's newest contribution to the space station. JAXA built the station's massive laboratory Kibo, which means "Hope" in Japanese. Construction of that $1 billion lab, which is as large as a tour bus, was completed in July. It has its own robotic arm, small airlock, external science porch and an attic storage room.
For its inaugural mission, the HTV-1's pressurized section has been packed with about 3.5 tons of supplies that include food, laptop computers and a smaller robotic arm for the Kibo lab to be used for delicate operations. An external payload drawer is loaded with two experiments to be attached to the Kibo module's porch.
If the HTV-1's week of rendezvous tests go well, the spacecraft will be directed to creep within about 33 feet (10 meters) of the station so NASA astronaut Nicole Stott can grab it with the outpost's robotic arm.
"My understanding of the hardware is that it's going to be a very stable vehicle," Stott said earlier this month. "I think the excitement of it is that it really is this new capability for us."
JAXA will watch over the HTV mission from its Tsukuba Space Center in Tsukuba, Japan, which is also home to the agency's Kibo mission operations center.