The H-IIB Launch Vehicle No. 4 with the KOUNOTORI4 (HTV4, a cargo transporter to the International Space Station) onboard lifted off from the Tanegashima Space Center at 4:48:46 on August 4

Launch pad fire grounds Japanese rocket and ISS cargo capsule

Image credit: JAXA

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) has halted a planned cargo ship launch to the International Space Station (ISS) after a fire erupted on the launch platform for the mission’s rocket.

Jaxa was counting down toward the launch of an HTV-8 cargo ship atop an H-IIB rocket when the launch-pad fire broke out at the Tanegashima Space Centre, south of Japan’s southern Kyushu island, on Wednesday (10 September).

Representatives with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), the rocket’s builder, said in a Twitter status update: “Today’s launch is postponed because we found a fire around the hole at the deck of the mobile launcher at 3:05 am JST (2:05 pm EDT/18:05 GMT). Now we are trying to extinguish a fire.”

Torrents of water were sprayed on the pad and the fire eventually was extinguished after two hours, but the launching was postponed pending inspections and work to establish what repairs might be needed.

The cause of the blaze was not immediately known, but a spokeswoman at MHI said no injuries were reported. The HTV cargo ship, carrying replacement batteries for ISS’s solar power system and 2.5 tons of crew supplies and equipment, suffered no apparent damage, according to Jaxa.

An open flame near rockets loaded with nearly 400,000 pounds (180 tonnes) of liquid hydrogen and oxygen propellants, along with four solid-fuel strap-on boosters, is potentially catastrophic, according to experts. Therefore, engineers will need to carry out a detailed inspection before the rocket and its ground support equipment can be readied for another launch attempt.

Japan has an unbroken record of success for its H-IIB rockets, with its last spacecraft being sent aloft in September 2018. Also, to date, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has launched seven HTV missions since 2009.

HTV-8 is carrying more than 4 tonnes of supplies for the ISS, including six lithium-ion batteries and a prototype Sony laser-communications system. According to Nasa officials, the astronauts onboard the ISS will install the batteries on the P6 solar array module in a spacewalk later this year to replace the ageing ones already there.

Nasa officials added 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. And in a statement on its website, Nasa said it had informed the ISS crew and said they were “safe aboard the station and well supplied”.

There have been several occasions where supply runs to the ISS have been postponed. At the end of April, the ISS suffered a major power shortage, which caused a delayed in a supply run to the station, with shipment expected to be launched by private US aerospace manufacturer, SpaceX.

The day after (2 May), Nasa reported that one of its aluminium suppliers was delivering faulty material for 19 years, which resulted in the failure of two space missions.

In February, Nasa warned aerospace manufacturers SpaceX and Boeing of design and safety concerns for their competing astronaut launch systems, impacting on the US bid to revive its human spaceflight programme.

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