Launchpad Fire Forces Japan to Postpone Cargo Ship Launch to Space Station: Report

The Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIB rocket carrying the HTV-8 spacecraft atop its launchpad at Tanegashima Space Center in Japan on Sept. 10, 2019.
The Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIB rocket carrying the HTV-8 spacecraft atop its launchpad at Tanegashima Space Center in Japan on Sept. 10, 2019. (Image credit: Mitsubishi Heavy Industries)

 Japan called off a planned cargo ship launch to the International Space Station today (Sept. 10) after a fire erupted on the launch platform for the mission's rocket, according to press reports. 

"Today’s launch is postponed because we found a fire around the hole at the deck of the mobile launcher at 3:05 a.m. JST (2:05 p.m. EDT/1805 GMT). Now we are trying to extinguish a fire," representatives with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the rocket's builder, said in a Twitter status update

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) was counting down toward the launch of an HTV-8 cargo ship atop an H-IIB rocket when the launchpad fire occurred at the Tanegashima Space Center, according to Aviation Week space editor Irene Klotz, who posted live updates from the launch site on Twitter.  The fire burned for about two hours before it was extinguished, and no injuries were reported, Klotz said.

The cause of the fire, and whether it caused any damage to the H-IIB rocket, have yet to be determined, Klotz added.

Ray Iechika Takaku, a spokesperson for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, told reporters on site that the company has never seen a launchpad fire during H-IIB launches, Klotz reported on Twitter. The fire began after fueling for the launch was complete, she added

Video: How Japan's HTV Cargo Ships Work
Japan's HTV Space Truck Explained (Infographic)

Japan has an unbroken record of success for its H-IIB rockets. The last spacecraft was sent aloft in September 2018. To date, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has launched seven HTV missions since 2009. Today's launch would have lifted off on the 10th anniversary of that first HTV flight.

HTV-8 is carrying more than 4 tons of supplies for the International Space Station, including six lithium-ion batteries and a prototype Sony laser-communications system to the ISS, and today would be the 10th anniversary of its first launch to the space station. NASA astronauts will install the batteries on the P6 solar array module in a spacewalk later this year to replace the aging ones already there, NASA officials have said.

NASA officials said the space station's current six-person Expedition 60 crew is in good health and in no danger of running out of food or other vital supplies.

"The astronauts are safe aboard the station and well supplied," NASA officials said in a statement.

Photos: Japan's Robotic Space Cargo Ship Fleet

The Sony system will be deployed to test future communications between satellites or with ground stations, using ultra-fast laser communications, according to the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency or JAXA. (Spacecraft today generally rely on radio, which has a more limited bandwidth to send information.)

"We have very high expectations for this technology," ISS astronaut Koichi Wakata, who is now a vice-president at JAXA, JAXA said in a statement. "This technology ... will likely be widely used not only in the telecommunications industry, but in the future as a means of communication in the field of exploration. Specifically, it can be used as a means of communication between the Earth and the International Space Station, the moon and Mars."

Editor's note: This story was updated at 6:12 p.m. EDT (1212 GMT) to include updates from a post-fire press conference by Aviation Week Space Editor Irene Klotz via Twitter and official statements from MHI and NASA. It was corrected earlier to reflect that only Japan's H-IIB rocket has a perfect launch record. The country's workhorse H-IIA rocket has had one failure in 40 launches. 

This is a developing story. Check back soon for updates.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: