A black-and-orange H-2A rocket lifted off from Japan's space center Monday carrying two satellites. One entered orbit, but communication with the other was lost as it was scheduled to deploy over the Pacific Ocean, officials said.
Hours later, mission controllers said they were still trying to determine whether $4.5 million DASH research module had been put in orbit. Late Monday, scientists at Japan's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, which created the module, said it had probably failed to separate from the rocket's second stage.
They said they were investigating the cause and would try to determine whether the probe could be salvaged. But space institute official Morita Yasuhiro said earlier that the DASH mission could be not completed if the module did not separate.
The problem was the latest blot on Japan's bid to compete with the United States and Europe in the lucrative business of launching satellites.
"If you can't get a satellite in orbit it doesn't count," said space analyst Joan Johnson-Freese of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. "It's a blow to the space program, but not an unrecoverable one."
Japanese space officials tried to stress that point, pledging 11 more launches over the next three years and emphasizing that the H-2A rocket itself fired almost perfectly and successfully deployed the second satellite, the $43 million SDS-1 probe.
"We will study 1,500 points of data from this flight and make improvements for the future," mission spokesman Shinji Nio said, calling the launch a success.
Japan's space administration, NASDA, had to scrap an earlier series of rockets, the H-2, when one failed to get its payload in orbit and another had to be blown up by remote control so it wouldn't veer out of control. U.S.-based Hughes Space and Communications International dumped an order for 10 satellite launches with Japan after those debacles.
The launch of the $64 million rocket was the second and final H-2A test flight from the space center in Tanegashima, a small island 610 miles southwest of Tokyo. Japan watched in relief last August when the first H-2A cleared the tower in a successful test.
Designed to test re-entry technology for future manned flights, the DASH probe was to circle Earth for three days before plunging to the Sahara Desert.
The SDS-1 is to orbit for about a year testing how commercial components such as microchips, batteries and solar cells perform in outer space.
Japanese officials said four strap-on booster rockets, used for the first time to give the 188-foot rocket extra lifting power for its dual cargo, worked well.
Successful launches aren't easy, and developing a viable commercial program is even more difficult. Of the 1 H-2A missions tentatively scheduled, all carry Japanese government not commercial payloads.
The H-2A can lift cargo of up to 4.5 tons, in line with Europe's Ariane rockets and the Delta rockets of the United States. But unlike its competitors, who have flexible launch schedules from space centers in Florida and French Guiana, Japan has a limited launch window.
Concessions made to fishermen around Tanegashima restrict rocket launches to 190 days a year. That makes booking flights more difficult, an important issue to commercial customers.
Some experts have questioned whether two test launches for the H-2A are enough. The H-2 line had five successful launches in a row before the sixth misfired and the seventh ended in a fireball. Johnson-Freese said Japan may need two more successful back-to-back launches to secure insurance coverage.
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