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Tiny Japanese rocket fails to make it to orbit after communications issue during flight

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It would have been the smallest rocket to put a payload into orbit

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After the fanfare of SpaceX’s return to flight, Japan attempted to launch a rocket of its own on Saturday — but the vehicle failed to achieve orbit. It was the launch of a tiny, experimental rocket called the SS-520-4, which was carrying a lone 6.6-pound satellite, called TRICOM-1, into orbit. While the first part of the launch went as planned, a communications failure during flight ultimately prompted flight controllers to abort the mission. As a result the rocket and the satellite it was carrying fell back into the ocean, according to an update from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

This was the first flight of the SS-520-4, a modified version of Japan’s SS-520 sounding rocket that’s used to deliver research payloads to altitudes 621 miles up (or 1,000 km). The updated SS-520-4 had been given an extra third stage, meaning a third engine had been placed on the top of the vehicle, to help give the satellite the extra boost it would need achieve orbit.

JAXA’s SS-520 rocket.
JAXA

Take off of the SS-520-4 occurred at 8:33AM Japan Time from Uchinoura Space Observatory, and initially everything was going smoothly. But about 20 seconds into flight, however, JAXA stopped receiving communication from the rocket, so the rest of the launch was aborted. JAXA confirmed that the first and second stage of the rocket separated as planned, but the ignition of the second stage was stopped. The rocket and satellite fell into an expected spot in the ocean southeast of Uchinoura.

If the launch had been successful, it would have been the smallest rocket to ever put an object into orbit around Earth, according to NASASpaceflight.com. The SS-520-4 stands at just over 31 feet tall and it’s only 20 inches in diameter, according to JAXA. The point of the mission was to demonstrate that such a small rocket could launch the TRICOM-1 satellite, which was going to take pictures of Earth from space.