Japan blasts the White Stork Kounotori to Space Station


A Japanese rocket successfully blasted off early this morning (Jan. 22) on a vital mission bound for the International Space Station (ISS). The launcher carried the Kounotori2 – which means ‘White Stork’ in Japanese – cargo resupply vessel. Kounotori2, also dubbed HTV2, is stocked with over 3800 kilograms (8000 pounds) of crucial science experiments, research gear, food and provisions for the six person international crew living aboard the Earth orbiting outpost.

Liftoff of the unmanned H-IIB rocket from Launch Pad No. 2 at the Tanegashima Space Center occurred earlier today at 2:37:57 p.m. on January 22, local Japan Standard Time (12:37:57 a.m. EST), from a remote island rocket base located in southern Japan.

Watch 2 Videos of the launch below. Especially be sure to view the Japanese version (interspersed with English) which captured dramatic rear-looking video of the receding Earth and its curvature and the separation of the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) – during the ascent to orbit.

The launch was flawless in all respects. The Japanese Space Agency – JAXA – confirmed that the Kounotori2 cargo carrier separated from the launch vehicle as expected at about 15 minutes and 13 seconds after liftoff.

Blast off of the 186 foot tall rocket had been delayed two days by poor weather. By the time of Saturday’s launch, the weather had cleared with a wind speed of 8.3 meters/second from the north-west and the temperature was 10.6 degrees Celsius according to JAXA.

The H-IIB is a two-stage rocket powered by liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen with four strap-on solid rocket boosters (SRBs) powered by polybutadiene. The SRB’s were jettisoned as planned about two minutes into the flight (see video).

Rendezvous at the ISS is scheduled to take place on Jan. 27.

After the HTV2 arrives in close proximity, astronauts on board will manually dock the cargo ship to the station. Using the stations Canadian built robotic arm, known as Canadarm2, the Expedition 26 crew of Cady Coleman and Scott Kelly from the US and Paolo Nespoli from Italy will grapple HTV2 and berth it to the Earth-facing port on the Harmony module.

Japanese Space Agency – JAXA – HTV Launch Video. In Japanese – interspersed with English

Video Caption: The H-IIB Launch Vehicle No. 2 with the KOUNOTOR 2 (HTV 2) cargo transporter onboard launched from the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan at 2:37:57 p.m. on January 22, Sat., Japan Standard Time, (12:37:57 a.m. EST) and is bound for the International Space Station (ISS). KOUNOTORI 2 translates as ‘White Stork’ in Japanese.

HTV Launch with NASA Commentary

HTV1 in flight to the ISS. The HTV, or KOUNOTORI, is an unmanned cargo transporter to be launched by the H-IIB launch vehicle. It is designed to deliver up to six tons of supplies including food, clothes, and experiment devices to the ISS in orbit at an altitude of about 400 kilometers and return with spent equipment, used clothing, and other waste material. Credit: NASA
HTV2 weighs 16,061 kilograms (35,408 pounds) and measures 10 meters long by 4 meters wide (33 feet by 13 feet). The vehicle can deliver both internal and external cargo to the station. In addition to Japanese equipment, the freighter is also loaded with over 2200 kg of experiments and supplies from NASA and Canada including both pressurized and unpressurized items.

The H-II Transfer Vehicle 2 (Kounotori 2) during media day at the JAXA Tanegashima Space Center, Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan on Nov. 25, 2010. Vehicle is fully assembled. Credit: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency

This was the second launch of the HTV cargo carrier which was developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The maiden launch occurred in September 2009 and was a test flight to demonstrate the autonomous and remotely-controlled rendezvous capabilities while also delivering cargo and supplies to the ISS.

Japan expects to construct and launch about one HTV per year with the capability to ramp up production to two vehicles per year if necessary and if the Japanese government approves funding.

JAXA is evaluating the possibility to convert the HTV into a vehicle capable of flying humans to space.

China, the other Asian superpower, has already established a human spaceflight program.

China has successfully launched three manned capsules to space and is vigorously moving forward with plans to orbit a manned space station.

After the forced retirement of the Space Shuttle later this year, NASA will be completely dependent on commercial companies and foreign governments to launch all of its future cargo requirements to the ISS.

More HTV 2 launch and launch processing photos below from JAXA

Can China enter the international space family?


It has often been called a ‘100 billion boondoggle’ – yet it is also unquestionably one of the most successful international programs in human history. The International Space Station (ISS) is just now starting to produce some of the valuable science that was the station’s selling point from the beginning. However, this delay can be attributed to the numerous tragedies, economic woes and other issues that have arisen on a global scale through the course of the station’s construction.

The one thing that the world learned early on from the ISS experience is that space is a great forum for diplomacy. One time arch-rivals now work side by side on a daily basis.

With much of the nations of the world talking about stepped-up manned exploration efforts it would seem only natural that the successful model used on the space station be incorporated into the highly-expensive business of manned space exploration. If so, then one crucial player is being given a hard look to see if they should be included – China.

Will we one day see Chinese taikonauts working alongside U.S. astronauts and Russian cosmonauts? Only time will tell. Photo Credit: NASA

“International partnership in space exploration has proven its worth over the last decade. It would be a positive step if the other space-faring nation of the world, China, were to join the assembled space explorers of humankind as we march outward into the solar system,” said former NASA Space Shuttle Program Manager Wayne Hale who writes a popular blog about space matters.

China is only the third nation (behind Russia and the United States) to have a successful manned space program, having launched its first successful manned space flight in 2003. This first mission only had a single person onboard, and gave the world a new word – ‘taikonaut’ (taikong is the Chinese word for space). The country’s next mission contained two of these taikonauts and took place in 2005. The third and most current manned mission that China has launched was launched in 2008 and held a crew of three.

Yang Liwei became the first of China's Taikonaut when he rocketed into orbit in 2003. Photo Credit: Xinhua

China has steadily, but surely, built and tested capabilities essential for a robust manned space program. Considering that China very ambitious goals for space this would seem a prudent course of action. China has stated publically that they want to launch a space station and send their taikonauts to the moon – neither of which are small feats.

China currently utilizes its Shenzhou spacecraft atop the Long March 2F booster from their Jiuquan facility. However, if China wants to accomplish these goals, they will need a more powerful booster. This has been part of the reason that the U.S. has been hesitant to include China due to concerns about the use of what are known as dual-use technologies (rockets that can launch astronauts can also launch nuclear weapons).

Both China's rocket and spacecraft are derived from Soviet Soyuz designs. Photo Credit: Xinhua/Wang Jianmin

Some have raised concerns about the nation’s human rights track record. It should be noted however that Russia had similar issues before being included in the International Space Station program.

“In the early 1990’s, some at NASA thought having Russian cosmonauts on the Space Shuttle would mean giving away trade secrets to the competition,” said Pat Duggins, author of the book Trailblazing Mars. “It turned out Russian crew capsules saved the International Space Station when the Shuttles were grounded after the Columbia accident in 2003. So, never say never on China, I guess.”

Duggins is not the only space expert who feels that China would make a good companion when mankind once again ventures out past low-Earth-orbit.

“One of the findings of the Augustine Commission was that the international framework that came out of the ISS program is one of the most important. It should be used and expanded upon for use in international beyond-LEO human space exploration,” said Dr. Leroy Chiao a veteran of four launches and a member of the second Augustine Commission. “My personal belief is that countries like China, which is only the third nation able to launch astronauts, should be included. My hope is that the politics will align soon, to allow such collaboration, using the experience that the US has gained in working with Russia to bring it about.”

Not everyone is completely convinced that China will be as valuable an asset as the Russians have proven themselves to be however.

“It is an interesting scenario with respect to the Chinese participation in an international effort in space. The U.S. has made some tremendous strides in terms of historical efforts to bridge the gap with the Russians and the results have been superb,” said Robert Springer a two-time space shuttle veteran. “The work that has resulted in the successful completion of the International Space Station is an outstanding testimony to what can be done when political differences are set aside in the interest of International cooperation. So, there is a good model of how to proceed, driven somewhat by economic realities as well as politics. I am not convinced that the economic and political scenario bodes well for similar results with the Chinese. It is a worthwhile goal to pursue, but I am personally not convinced that a similar outcome will be the result, at least not in the current environment.”

China's journey into space has just begun, but it remains to be seen if they will be going it alone or as part of a partnership. Photo Credit: Xinhua

JAXA Considering Second Try at Akatsuki-Venus Rendezvous One Year Earlier than Planned

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is now considering making a second attempt to insert the Akatsuki probe into Venus’ orbit one year earlier than originally planned, in five years instead of six. After a malfunctioning valve in the spacecraft’s fuel pressure system caused the engine to function abnormally, Akatsuki failed to enter Venus’ orbit on Dec. 7, 2010 as planned. JAXA had said the spacecraft’s orbit around the Sun would put it in position for another orbit insertion attempt in about six years. But because the spacecraft’s speed has slowed more than expected, the agency now says it may be possible to slowly decelerate Akatsuki even more and let Venus “catch up with it,” according to a report in the Mainichi Daily News. Therefore, an attempt to enter orbit may be made sometime in 2015. A quicker return to Venus is also advantageous in terms of the lifespan of the probe and its equipment.

“At the speed the probe was moving under our first retry plan, it would probably have been impossible to make the orbital insertion,” said a JAXA official, quoted in the Japanese online news site. “We hope to explore every possibility, and make an exploration of Venus a reality.”

After the original mission failure, JAXA had calculated that Akatsuki would make 11 trips around the Sun for every 10 Venus made, putting the next closest encounter between the spacecraft and planet sometime in December 2016 or January 2017. But subsequent examination of data showed Ataksuki’s engine power had dropped by almost 60 percent, slowing the spacecraft and making it possible to make a second attempt at entering orbit a year earlier. The bad news is that the slowdown is possibly caused by a malfunction in the fuel supply system or damage to the engine nozzle. If that is the case, the prospects for restoring full function are very low.

Additionally, if the engine nozzle has been weakened, it will be difficult to decelerate the Akatsuki enough for orbital insertion when it again closes with Venus. But after consultations with engineers, JAXA is now considering trying to decelerate the craft a little bit at a time, allowing it to make eight orbits around the sun before Venus catches up with it in five years.

Source: The Daily Mainichi News

Faulty Valve Caused Akatsuki Failure at Venus


The Japanese space agency has deduced that a faulty engine valve was the reason the Akatsuki spacecraft did not go into orbit around Venus as planned on December 6, 2010. According to the Daily Yomiuri, a malfunctioning valve in the probe’s fuel pressure system caused the engine to function abnormally. The valve is a standard component in many previous space missions, JAXA said, and it was not modified at all for Akatsuki.

Earlier, JAXA reported that Akatsuki’s engine did perform a burn to slow it down, but 152 seconds into the burn the fuel pressure dropped and the probe became unbalanced. Because the retrofiring of the rockets failed to slow down the probe enough for Venus to capture it, it was unable to enter into orbit around the planet, and then went into safe mode.

The JAXA investigation identified five possible causes of the mishap and all stemmed from the valve’s failure to open. JAXA also said they intend “to further investigate why the valve did not open, and how much damage was caused to Akatsuki’s thruster nozzle, by conducting tests that also will indicate whether the probe will be able to go into orbit around Venus when it comes near the planet six years from now.”

After Akatsuki’s launch in May, the functions of its main engine were tested in June. However, the engine was fired for too short a time to detect the problem with the valve, JAXA said.

The findings were presented to the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry’s Space Activities Commission.

Source: Daily Yomiuri

No Asteroid Particles Found in Second Hayabusa Compartment, But More in First

Artist concept of the Hayabusa spacecraft, which visited asteroid Itokawa in 2005 and returned samples to Earth in 2010. Credit: JAXA


No visible material from asteroid Itokawa was found inside the second compartment of a canister returned to Earth by the Hayabusa spacecraft. However, JAXA also announced that more micron-sized grains have been found in the first compartment, opened earlier this year. Reportedly, the first compartment has about 1,500 tiny particles, however some might be aluminum particles from the container itself. But about 20 grains were rocky or mineral-based. However, according to the Daily Yomiuri Online, no visible material was inside the second chamber, although further investigations of the second compartment will be done with a special microscope.

Hayabusa attempted to land on Itokawa twice. The cylindrical canister was divided into two chambers, and the second chamber was to contain material collected during the spacecraft’s first landing.
JAXA officials expect the second compartment to contain more microscopic particles from Itokawa since the first landing was longer than the second.

As far as the particles from the first chamber, several have been observed with an electron microscope, and according to UmannedSpaceflight.com, the “rocky” ones are 30 microns in size, with several larger ones are about 100 microns.

JAXA hopes to provide more insight on the nature of the grains by the end of the year.

Akatsuki Update: Fuel Pressure Drop Likely Caused Insertion Failure


While JAXA is still trying to get an exact handle on the problems that the Akatsuki probe sent to Venus encountered, there is a little bit of news leaking out. JAXA held a press conference last night, and the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper has a brief recap of the conference. During some of the systems checks on the probe, it also took a few images of Venus, and many of the instruments on the probe appear to be working okay – it’s the engine that’s having the most problems.

Here’s what is known so far: Akatsuki’s engine did perform a burn to slow it down, but 152 seconds into the burn the fuel pressure dropped and the probe became unbalanced. Because the retrofiring of the rockets failed to slow down the probe enough for Venus to capture it, it was unable to enter into orbit around the planet, and then went into safe mode.

As to what caused the sudden drop in fuel, JAXA currently suspects that there is a damaged pipe or valve that reduced the flow of helium into the engine, but that is still speculative. As the engine burns propellant (Akatsuki uses a hydrazine/nitrogen tetroxide engine), helium flows into the tank to maintain the pressure. Something failed in the helium injection flow, and precipitated a drop in internal tank pressure, reducing the flow of propellant and causing the engines to stop burning.

The ceramic nozzle of the engine is also thought to have been damaged by the misfiring, which may make the task of trying to get the probe to Venus when the chance comes around again in six years a daunting one.

An image of Venus taken by Akatsuki's Ultraviolet imager (UVI) at the 365 nm wavelength, the color is artificial. Field of View: 12 deg x 12 deg Image Credit: ISAS

JAXA is planning on doing some tests on the ground to maybe come to a workaround of this problem. There seems to be plenty of fuel left, which is good news, but the damaged nozzle is not. Maybe they’ll call in some Hayabusa team members, and pull it through.

The Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday that there is some speculation that something may have struck the probe, though this most recent press conference from JAXA makes no mention of it.

Also, Emily Lakdawalla at The Planetary Society Blog reprinted some tweets translated from Japanese that summarize details from the press conference, as well as the Yomiuri Shimbun article.

Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, ISAS, the Planetary Society Blog,

Akatsuki Fails to Enter Orbit of Venus

JAXA announced that the Akatsuki spacecraft failed to enter orbit around Venus. The orbit insertion maneuver was performed, the space agency said in a statement, but “unfortunately, we have found that the orbiter was not injected into the planned orbit as a result of orbit estimation.” While extremely disappointing, perhaps not all is lost. If the spacecraft can be stabilized, there is a chance it could enter orbit in 6 years when it passes by Venus again.

At a press conference, project manager Masato Nakamura said (from translated reports) that the spacecraft is functioning but has put itself in a standby mode with its solar panels facing towards the Sun. It is also spinning slowly — about every 10 minutes — and radio contact is possible only for 40 seconds at a time. Engineers are using ground antennas in Japan as well as NASA’s Deep Space Network to send commands to stabilize the spacecraft and to determine its trajectory.

JAXA said they have set up an investigation team to study the cause of the failure, and will provide updates with the countermeasures and investigation results.

Japan had a similar situation occur with their Nozomi spacecraft at Mars in 2003, when they lost contact with the spacecraft just 5 days before orbit insertion around the Red Planet.

Akatsuki was launched from the Tanegashima Space Center on May 21, 2010.

Akatsuki Encounters Problems at Venus


Japan’s first Venus space probe encountered problems while attempting orbit insertion and went into safe mode. It took longer than expected (an hour and a half) to regain communications after a known 22 minute blackout with the Akatsuki spacecraft, and apparently controllers are still trying to ascertain the spacecraft’s orbit. From translated Twitter reports and a document posted on the JAXA website, it appears engineers confirmed ignition of the thruster before Akatsuki moved behind Venus, but had trouble pinpointing the spacecraft after the blackout should have ended. They have regained some radio communications.

“It is not known which path the probe is following at the moment,” a JAXA official Munetaka Ueno told reporters at the ground control late Tuesday, according to AFP. “We are making maximum effort to readjust the probe.”

From a document posted early this Tuesday morning on a special JAXA website for Akatsuki (using Google Translate):

“The communication situation analysis has been confirmed that the spacecraft into safe hold mode,” says a translated document. “It is conducted to ensure continued operation of the information obtained at an early state of the spacecraft and orbital …stable spin probe to capture the sun.”

We’ll post more news as it becomes available.