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 (opens in new tab). 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 (opens in new tab).
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 (opens in new tab). The fire began after fueling for the launch was complete, she added (opens in new tab).
Fire burned for more than two hours. No sign of a fuel leak. Hole was not being used for venting or anything at this point in the countdown. Just heat-retardant materials around metallic hole, says MHI Launch Director Atsutoshi TamuraSeptember 10, 2019
Cause of fire is not yet known. Don't know if any damage yet to H-IIB rocket.September 10, 2019
MHI's Ray lechika Takaku briefs media on situation at launch pad, where teams are fighting fire at the top of the mobile launcherFueling was complete, no word on cause. Fire started at 3:10 a.m. local time. pic.twitter.com/8BzslmXWy3September 10, 2019
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 (opens in new tab).
Photos: Japan's Robotic Space Cargo Ship Fleet (opens in new tab)
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 (opens in new tab) 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.
- Space Station's Robotic Cargo Ship Fleet (A Photo Guide) (opens in new tab)
- Photos: Japan Launches HTV-4 Cargo Ship to Space Station (opens in new tab)
- JAXA: Japan's Aerospace Exploration Agency (opens in new tab)