H-2B launch
File photo of an H-2B launch. Credit: MHI

PARIS — The launch of a Japanese cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station was postponed Sept. 10 when a fire broke out on a launch platform several hours before the scheduled liftoff.

In a brief statement, launch vehicle manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) said the fire broke out on the platform carrying the H-2B rocket about three and a half hours before the 5:33 p.m. Eastern scheduled launch of the HTV-8 cargo spacecraft. The statement didn’t identify the cause of the fire or what damage it caused to the platform or the rocket.

Neither MHI nor the Japanese space agency JAXA set a new launch date for the mission. Industry sources said they expect the launch to be delayed by at least several days in order to make any repairs to the launch platform and inspect the rocket itself for any damage incurred by the fire.

The HTV is carrying 5.4 metric tons of cargo, 3.5 tons of which in the pressurized part of the spacecraft in the form of experiments and supplies. The remaining 1.9 tons, in an unpressurized platform, includes a new set of batteries for the space station’s power supply, to be installed in a series of spacewalks this fall. A delay in the launch is unlikely to affect ISS operations, although an extended delay would push back the spacewalks for installing the batteries.

The launch will be the first this year for the H-2 family of rockets, which includes the H-2A rocket used for most satellite launches and the H-2B for HTV cargo spacecraft launches. The rocket is used primarily for Japanese government launches, although MHI has maintained a toehold in the commercial launch market.

MHI is planning two commercial H-2A launches in 2020, said Ko Ogasawara, vice president and general manager of space systems at MHI, during a panel discussion at Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week conference here Sept. 10, several hours before the launch scrub. One is the first Inmarsat-6 communications satellite and the other is Hope, the Mars orbiter being developed by the United Arab Emirates.

The company is making “steady progress” in the commercial launch market, he argued, which will be aided by the introduction of the new H3 rocket in 2020. “Our main market currently is the institutional market,” he said. “But, to survive in this industry with the new H3 vehicle, we have to penetrate into the commercial market.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...