Japan?s first-ever spacecraft to fly vital supplies to theInternational Space Station is poised to make its inaugural launch today.
The H-2 Transfer Vehicle (HTV), a newunmanned spacecraft capable of hauling tons of food, experiments and othersupplies to the space station, is slated to blast off at 1:01 p.m. EDT (1701 GMT)from Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan. It will be 2:01 a.m. LocalTime when Japan?s JAXA space agency launches the spacecraft on its maidenvoyage.
?HTV-1 is opening up new horizons for JAXA?s undertaking ofhuman spaceflight,? said Masazumi Miyake, deputy director of JAXA?s Houstonoffice. ?I like to say that JAXA is now entering a new era.?
The new HTV spacecraft is the latest in an internationalfleet of cargo ships to support the space station, which is the $100billion product of 16 different countries and the largest structure ever builtin space. Six astronauts currently live aboard: two Americans, two Russians, aBelgian and a Canadian.
?It?s an amazing vehicle and it?s a pleasure to have it inthe fleet,? said Mike Suffredini, NASA?s space station program manager.
NASA space shuttles and Russian Soyuz vehicles ferry newcrews to the station. Russia?s unmanned Progress space freighters and Europe?slarge Automated Transfer Vehicles also haul precious food, water and othersupplies to sustain astronauts aboard the station.
The shuttle Discovery just left the space station Tuesdayand is due to land in Florida later this evening, only six hours after theHTV-1 launch attempt.
Japan?s HTV, however, stands apart from other unmanned cargoships in that it can haul supplies for use inside the station and largeunpressurized experiments and equipment to remain outside. For its flightdebut, the HTV-1?s external cargo drawer is filled with two experiments - onefor JAXA and one for NASA - to be attached to the Kibo lab?s external porch.
The cylindrical spacecraft weighs 16 1/2 tons and is about33 feet (10 meters) long and 14 feet (4.4 meters) wide. It is designed to haulup to six tons of supplies to the space station, but is packed with 3 1/2 tonsof cargo for the debut flight.
The vehicle is powered by solar panels attached to its hull,and blasts off on the equally brand newH-2B rocket, which is derived from Japan?s workhorse H-2A rocket family.
If all goes well, the HTV-1 will arrive at the InternationalSpace Station on Sept. 17 where, unlike other unmanned spacecraft, it willhover just off the bow of the outpost?s NASA segment while an astronaut uses arobotic arm to pluck it from orbit.
?Everyone is anxiously awaiting its first mission,? saidDana Weigel, NASA?s lead station flight director for the test flight.
Japan has until Sept. 30 to launch the first HTV spacecraft,but only seven opportunities to actually attempt a liftoff because of the timerequired to empty and refuel the spacecraft?s H-2B rocket.
If JAXA cannot launch by end of the month, it would likelyhave to wait until February to avoid dropping rocket components into Japanesefishing grounds off the coast of the seaside launch site.
Critical test flight
With NASA?s space shuttle fleet slated to retire by 2010 orso, the space station will grow more reliant on cargo shipments from Russia,Europe and Japan.
?This system is critical for us and this particular flightis critical because we need to prove this system out,? Suffredini said.
The HTV spacecraft has beenin development since 1997, Miyake said. To date, the space agency has spentabout $680 million to build the HTV, and the debut ship alone costs about $220million, he added.
?This HTV-1 vehicle is the demonstration flight to verifyits functionality and components,? Miyake said. ?After the completion of thisHTV mission, we are planning to launch one operational HTV per year.?
The cargo ship is also Japan?s newest contribution to thespace station. JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, built thestation?s massive laboratory Kibo, which means ?Hope? in Japanese. Constructionof the $1 billion lab, which is as large as a tour bus, was completed in July.It has its own robotic arm, small airlock, external science porch and an atticstorage room.
For its inaugural mission, the HTV-1?s pressurized sectionhas been packed with about 3 1/2 tons of supplies that include food, laptopcomputers and a smaller robotic arm for the Kibo lab to be used for delicateoperations. After a week of rendezvous and emergency abort tests, thespacecraft is expected to creep close to the station so NASA astronaut NicoleStott can grab it with the outpost?s robotic arm.
?My understanding of the hardware is that it?s going to be avery stable vehicle,? Stott said earlier this month. ?I think the excitement ofit is that it really is this new capability for us.?
JAXA will watch over the HTV mission from its Tsukuba SpaceCenter in Tsukuba, Japan, which is also home to the agency?s Kibo missionoperations center.
?We are confident the HTV-1 mission will be a success,?Miyake said.
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