Japan's First Space Cargo Ship Ready to Fly
An artist's interpretation of Japan's H-2 Transfer Vehicle arriving at the International Space Station.
Credit: JAXA.

Japan?s first unmanned spacecraft to haul cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) is nearly ready for its maiden launch next week.

The new cargo ship is poised to launch toward the station on Sept. 10 at 1:01 p.m. EDT (1701 GMT) from the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan on a shakedown cruise. If all goes well, the inaugural spacecraft, called the H-2 Transfer Vehicle 1 (HTV-1), should arrive at the station on Sept. 17.

The spacecraft was built by JAXA, Japan?s space agency, and will launch atop the country?s brand new H-2B rocket. It will be early Sept. 11 Local Time at the Japanese launch site at the time of liftoff.

?JAXA is ready to carry out the important HTV-1 mission as a new contribution to the ISS program,? said Masazumi Miyake, director of the JAXA office at NASA?s Johnson Space Center in Houston, in a Wednesday briefing.

JAXA mission managers are expected to hold a series of final readiness reviews for HTV-1 and its rocket booster to make sure it?s ready for launch day.

?There?s very little work to be done,? said Mike Suffredini, NASA?s space station program manager. ?We?re all on schedule and we?re not working any issues relative to this launch."

Suffredini said that the new spacecraft, like cargo ships built by Europe and Russia, will be vital to support the space station?s six-person crew once NASA?s space shuttle fleet retires in the next year or so.

The HTV-1 cargo ship is Japan?s latest contribution to the International Space Station. Astronauts completed construction of JAXA?s enormous Kibo laboratory, a $1 billion facility the size of a tour bus, in July with the addition of an exterior experiment porch.

The spacecraft is a solar-powered cylinder about 33 feet (10 meters) long and 14 feet (4.4 meters) wide. It can haul up to 6 tons of pressurized and unpressurized cargo to the station, but will only be packed with about 3 1/2 tons for its debut flight.

Unlike the automated cargo ships built by Russia and Europe, which can dock themselves at the station, the HTV-1 is designed to fly close to the orbiting laboratory and be grabbed by its robotic arm. Astronauts inside the outpost will oversee the approach, rendezvous and grapple.

After about a month at the space station, the disposable cargo ship is expected to be detached from the outpost and commanded to intentionally burn up in the Earth?s atmosphere over the southern Pacific Ocean.

Miyake said JAXA has spent about $680 million since 1997 to develop the HTV spacecraft. The vehicle alone costs about $220 million, he said.

The new H-2B rocket launching the HTV-1 cargo ship is a more powerful booster derived from Japan?s workhorse H-2A rocket, which the country has been flying since 2001.

The HTV spacecraft will be controlled from JAXA?s Tsukuba Space Center, which is also home to the agency?s Kibo mission control center.

Japan has until Sept. 30 to try and loft the HTV-1 mission from its seaside launch site before its window closes due to the country?s off-shore fishing season. The next opportunity to launch the spacecraft after September is in February 2010, Suffredini said.

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