Japan's Space One Kairos rocket explodes during its inaugural flight

Smoke billows after Japan's Space One small solid-fueled Kairos rocket explodes shortly after its inaugural launch at the Space One launch pad on the tip of the Kii Peninsula in Kushimoto town, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan on March 13, 2024.

Kyodo News | Reuters

Japan's Space One's small solid-fueled Kairos rocket exploded shortly after launching on its inaugural flight Wednesday as the company attempted to become the first Japanese company to put a satellite into orbit.

The 18-meter (59-foot) solid-fuel, four-stage rocket exploded seconds after liftoff just after 11:01 a.m. (0201 GMT), leaving behind loud smoke, fire, rocket fragments and firefighting water. Sprinklers appeared near the launch pad, and could be seen on local media in a live broadcast of the launch at the tip of the mountainous Kii Peninsula in western Japan.

Space One said the flight was “stopped” after the launch and that it was investigating the situation. There was no immediate indication of the cause of the explosion or whether there were any injuries. The pads usually don't have any people anywhere nearby during the launch. Space One said the launch process is highly automated and requires approximately ten employees at the ground control center.

Kairos carried an experimental government satellite that could temporarily replace intelligence satellites in orbit if they stopped working.

Space One had planned the launch on Saturday but postponed it after a ship entered a nearby marine restricted zone.

Although Japan is a relatively small player in the space race, the country's rocket developers are scrambling to build cheaper vehicles to meet growing demand for satellite launches from its government and from global customers.

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Tokyo-based Space One was founded in 2018 by a group of Japanese companies: Canon ElectronicsAerospace Engineering Unit IHIconstruction company Shimizu and the state-backed Development Bank of Japan. Two of the largest banks in Japan, Mitsubishi UFJ And MizuhoIt also owns minority shares.

Shares of Canon Electronics fell more than 9% after Wednesday's botched launch.

Space One President Masakazu Toyoda said the company wants to offer “space courier services” to domestic and international customers, with a goal of launching 20 rockets a year by the late 2020s. Although the company delayed Kairos' inaugural launch window four times, it said orders for the planned second and third flights had been filled, including by an external customer.

Space One has not disclosed Kairos' launch costs, but company CEO Kozo Abe said it was “competitive enough” against its American rival. Rocket laboratory.

Rocket Lab has launched more than 40 small electronic rockets from New Zealand since 2017 at a cost of approximately $7 million per flight. Several Japanese companies have used Electron for their missions, including radar satellite makers iQPS and Synspective, and orbital debris removal startup Astroscale.

Last month, the state-funded Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency successfully launched its new affordable flagship rocket, H3. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) completed a historic “set-up” landing on the moon this year, and H3 is scheduled to carry about 20 satellites and probes into space by 2030.

In 2019, Interstellar Technologies conducted Japan's first specially developed rocket launch using the MOMO series, despite the lack of a full-scale satellite payload.

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Japan, in partnership with the United States, seeks to revitalize its domestic aviation industry to confront technological and military competition from China and Russia.

Last year, the government promised to provide “comprehensive” support to space startups using technology vital to national security, as part of its quest to build constellations of satellites to enhance intelligence capabilities.

The Japanese Ministry of Defense said on Friday that it had concluded an agreement with Space One to enhance the payload of its rockets by testing fuel-efficient methane gas engines.

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