The joint NASA/JAXA GPM Core Observatory lifted off today from the Japanese Space Agency’s Tanagashima Launch Complex, successfully deploying from its carrier rocket moments later.
Today’s launch took place aboard the H-IIA rocket, which is built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The H-II family consists of two boosters, the H-IIA and the larger and more powerful H-IIB. Both are cryogenic, with first and second stages fueled by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, and the principle difference being that somewhat wider and slightly longer H-IIB features two, rather than one first stage LE-7A engines. Both can be equipped with a mix and match set of solid fueled boosters which come in two sizes.
Although Japan intended the H-II family to become a regular provider of commercial launch services, it has never been able to get pricing to a competitive level, despite recent cost reduction measures which saw most responsibilities shift from JAXA to prime contractor Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.
With the entrance of SpaceX and the much lower priced Falcon 9 into commercial service, as well as increased marketing by China of its own Long March family of boosters, Japan seems to realize the odds of the H-II family achieving commercial relevance appear to be fading as quickly as tonight’s rocket shot into the sky. As this press release indicates however, Japan may be about to embark on a program to design a new, more competitive launch vehicle.