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Japanese Rocket Fails in Launch of Scientific Orbiter

Asia: The second such space disaster in three months raises questions about nation's technological prowess.

February 11, 2000|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — In a fresh disaster for Japan's troubled space program, an M-5 rocket carrying a scientific satellite failed to reach its orbit Thursday, the second loss of a Japanese satellite in three months.

"I am extremely shocked," Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki said. "If this string of failures continues, of course we will have to consider drastic revisions" to the space program.

The crash reinforced fears here that Japan could lose its international reputation for cutting-edge technology--and its bid for a major share of the lucrative market for commercial satellite launches, where Mitsubishi Electric, NEC, Toshiba and other Japanese firms have high ambitions. The M-5 can launch low-orbit satellites that can be used for, among other things, new mobile phone systems.

The solid-fuel rocket lifted off at 10:30 a.m. from Kagoshima Space Center in southwestern Japan, carrying a 1.7-ton satellite designed to observe X-rays in outer space. But the satellite detached from the rocket shortly after launch, and officials from the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science lost track of it by 1 p.m. after it failed to reach its orbit of between 123 miles and 250 miles above Earth.

ISAS officials said the satellite had probably burned up on reentry to the atmosphere. They said the failure was probably because of a damaged nozzle that failed to vent gas from the first stage of the rocket.

The nozzle was manufactured by Nissan Motor Corp.'s aerospace division. According to Japanese press reports, Nissan wants to sell the aerospace division as part of its drastic restructuring program and had reached a preliminary agreement for a sale to Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries Co., which wanted to use Nissan's advanced technology to improve its position in the commercial satellite-launching business.

The acquisition had been expected to be concluded in March, but the Nikkei newspaper, Japan's leading financial daily, said Thursday's disaster could endanger the deal.

Nissan spokesman Tomoyuki Shioya confirmed today that Nissan is in negotiations to sell its space division but declined to comment on the buyer or the price. Shioya said that Thursday's nozzle failure would not affect the sale.

In November, a liquid-fuel H-2 rocket plummeted into the Pacific shortly after liftoff. That disaster prompted the National Space Development Agency of Japan to scrap its nearly completed H-2 rocket program to focus on the more advanced H-2A rocket.

The H-2 and M-5 rocket programs involve different technologies and are run by separate government agencies, and so Thursday's disaster was seen as particularly damaging.

The cost of the M-5 rocket and satellite was estimated at $1.57 billion. The Mainichi newspaper reported that, due to budget constraints, the satellite wasn't insured.

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