11 September 2009
Japan takes leap forward with launch of H-2B rocket
TANEGASHIMA, Kagoshima Prefecture--A new domestic rocket carrying Japan's first unmanned space transportation vehicle was successfully launched early Friday, a significant step toward increasing the country's presence in the ever-changing space development industry.

The H-2B rocket, carrying the HTV transportation vehicle filled with supplies for the International Space Station, lifted off at 2:01:46 a.m. Friday at the Tanegashima Space Center, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

About 15 minutes later, JAXA confirmed the separation of the HTV from the rocket, and the transportation vehicle was put into orbit

Weighing 16.5 tons, including its cargo, the HTV is 10 meters long and 4.4 meters in diameter. It was developed and produced in Japan at a cost of 68 billion yen.

The HTV contains food, clothes and other daily necessities, as well as letters and photos, for the astronauts aboard the ISS.

It will also bring equipment for experiments in Japan's Kibo laboratory module on the ISS.

After its equipment is checked, the HTV, which now orbits the Earth at an altitude of 200 to 300 kilometers, is scheduled to berth at the ISS at an altitude of 400 kilometers next Friday, JAXA said.

After its mission is completed, the HTV will be separated from the ISS and will burn up when it re-enters the atmosphere.

The two-stage H-2B, a two-engine rocket more powerful than its single-engine predecessor, the H-2A, was developed to launch the HTV.

The successful launch follows Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata's first long-term stay aboard the ISS, from March to July, and the completion in July of the Kibo lab module.

Although the overall success of the HTV's first mission depends on its docking with the ISS, experts say the launch represents another big step forward for Japan in the space development field.

So far, the task of transporting large equipment to the ISS has fallen mainly to U.S. space shuttles.

However, U.S. space shuttles will be decommissioned as early as next year.

"After the decommissioning of the space shuttles, Russia, the only country capable of sending people to the ISS, is certain to charge more," said Fujio Nakano, a representative of Sora-no-kai, a private think tank on space policies. "But Japan has obtained a precious trump card."

One advantage of the HTV is that it can carry larger loads than Russian and European transport vehicles.

JAXA plans to launch seven HTVs, one each year, through 2015.

To set up the Kibo lab module, Japan turned to the United States to carry the necessary equipment aboard its space shuttles. Japan also relies on the United States for Kibo's electric supply.

Because of this, the United States owns 46 percent of the rights to use the lab.

Although having a transportation vehicle of its own will not increase Japan's share of rights, the HTV will be the only vehicle capable of carrying bigger equipment after the space shuttles are decommissioned.

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