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Launch 2020: A Year of Transition for Japan

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
June 27, 2021
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The United Arab Emirates’ Hope Probe took off at 2:58 p.m. PDT on July 19 from a launch site in Japan, headed for Mars to study its atmosphere. (Credit: MHI Launch Services via YouTube)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

It was a typical year for Japan with four successful launches and no failures. Japan has averaged 3.8 launches annually over the past decade. Last year also saw a Japanese astronaut become the first foreigner to fly aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft.

2020 Launch Record: 4-0
2019 Launch Record: 2-0

Launch Vehicles: H-IIA, HIIB
Launch Site: Tanegashima Space Center

Japan’s most watched domestic launch of 2020 occurred on July 20 when a H-IIA rocket launched the United Arab Emirates Hope orbiter to Mars. The launch was nominal, and the spacecraft entered Martian orbit on Feb. 9, 2021.

Although Hope was celebrated as the planetary mission conducted by an Arab nation, it wouldn’t have been possible without heavy American participation. The spacecraft was built in Colorado with the substantial involvement of engineers and scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder, the University of California Berkeley, and the University of Arizona.

The Hope Probe attached to the payload support structure and encapsulated within the payload fairing, is set to board the H2A launch vehicle on July 10. (Credit: MBRSC)

The final flights of the H-IIB launch vehicle and the HTV resupply ship to the International Space Station took place on May 21. The duo first flew in September 2009 and compiled a perfect 9-0 records in supplying cargo to the orbiting laboratory. Japan is planning to replace both the rocket and the supply ship with upgraded vehicles.

The Hope and HTV launches were bookended by the launches of a pair of optical satellites. On Feb. 9, an H-IIA booster launched the IGS Optical 7 reconnaissance satellite for the Japanese government. It was the 16th successful launch in the Information Gathering Satellites (IGS) series.

On Nov. 29, an H-IIA rocket launched Japan’s first Optical Data Relay Satellite. The dual use civilian-military geosynchronous satellite is equipped with the JAXA developed Laser Utilizing Communication System (LUCAS), which allows for high data transfers to and from ground stations and spacecraft in lower orbits.

H-III launch vehicle variants (Credit: JAXA)

New Rocket and Resupply Vehicle Under Development

Japan plans to replace the H-IIA and H-IIB boosters with the new H3 launch vehicle. JAXA and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries are designing the new booster to be significantly cheaper and easier to build and operate. The basic configuration without strap-on solid rocket boosters would be priced at 500 billion yen ($48.2 million), which is roughly half the price of the H-IIA launch.

The maiden H3 launch is now scheduled for the 2021 fiscal year, which began on April 1. The launcher is intended to replace the H-IIA after 2023.

HTV-X cargo ship. (Credit: JAXA)

The HTV-X resupply ship will be an upgraded version of the HTV freighter. The vehicle will have an elongated, 3.5-meter long pressurized logistics module with a new side hatch that will allow for the late loading of cargo on the launch pad.

HTV-X will also include a 3.8-meter long module that greatly increases the amount of unpressurized cargo the vehicle can carry. The vehicle’s service module will have more power and the capability of operating independently from the other two modules.

HTV-X at the Lunar Gateway. (Credit: JAXA)

JAXA is considering using the HTV-X freighter to supply the U.S.-led Lunar Gateway station. Launching the cargo ship to lunar orbit would require a larger launch vehicle.

International Space Station Mission

On Nov. 15, SpaceX launch the first Crew Dragon operational mission. Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi joined NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker and Victor Glover for a six-month stay on the station. Noguchi was the first foreign astronaut to fly aboard Crew Dragon.

SpaceX Crew-1 astronauts Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, Michael Hopkins and Soichi Noguchi. (Credits: NASA)

It was Noguchi’s third space mission. In July 2005, he flew to ISS aboard the space shuttle Discovery, which was the first launch since the loss of the Columbia shuttle in February 2003. Noguchi conducted three spacewalks during the nearly 14-day mission.

Noguchi made his second flight to the station aboard the Russian Soyuz TMA-17 spacecraft in on Dec. 21, 2009. He had spent 163 days in space by the time he returned to Earth on June 1, 2010.

The Crew-1 mission raised the permanent number of astronauts on ISS from six to seven. The extra crew member doubled the amount of time devoted to science and experiments on the station.

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