Japan’s Epsilon Rocket Stands Ready for Maiden Launch on Saturday

Artist's impression of Japan's new Epsilon rocket - which marries H-IIA and M-V launch vehicle technology - will deliver the SPRINT-A ultraviolet observatory into low-Earth orbit on Saturday. Image Credit: JAXA
Artist’s impression of Japan’s new Epsilon rocket, which marries H-IIA and M-V launch vehicle technology. The rocket will deliver the SPRINT-A ultraviolet observatory into low-Earth orbit on Saturday. Image Credit: JAXA

Three weeks after “an attitude abnormality” forced its first launch attempt to be scrubbed, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is ready to fly its first Epsilon rocket from the Uchinoura Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture. According to JAXA, the new vehicle will liftoff at 1:45 p.m. Japan Standard Time (12:45 a.m. EDT) Saturday, 14 September, at the opening of a 45-minute “launch window.” The Epsilon-1 mission will transport the 700-pound Spectroscopic Planet Observatory for Recognition of Interaction of Atmosphere (SPRINT-A) into low-Earth orbit to observe Venus, Mars, and Jupiter with a battery of ultraviolet spectrometers and guiding cameras.

Originally scheduled to fly on 27 August, Epsilon-1 was postponed when “an automatic stop alarm was issued as an attitude abnormality was detected approximately 19 seconds prior to the liftoff time, during the automatic countdown sequence.” In the aftermath of the scrub, JAXA engineers set to work tackling the cause of the problem and on 5 and 8 September conducted a pair of launch simulations to resolve a “time-synching” glitch between the ground and on-board computers. The results appear to have been successful, for on Thursday, 12 September JAXA announced the new Saturday launch target date.

Described by its project manager as a vehicle which will literally “open up the future,” the Epsilon stands 78 feet tall and marries one Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) from Japan’s H-IIA rocket with upper-stage hardware from the 2006-retired M-V launcher. The Epsilon is reportedly capable of lofting up to 2,600 pounds of payload into low-Earth orbit, but its maiden flight was already delayed by five days past 22 August, as JAXA needed additional time to resolve a problem surrounding an incorrect line routing in the signal relay equipment used to check the rocket’s critical functions. The launch attempt on 27 August proceeded relatively smoothly until the last-minute scrub.

Artist's impression of the SPRINT-A extreme ultraviolet observatory in low-Earth orbit. Image Credit: NASA
Artist’s impression of the SPRINT-A extreme ultraviolet observatory in low-Earth orbit. Image Credit: NASA

It is the cost savings—estimated to be about 30 percent better than the M-V—which JAXA is particularly keen to stress about the new Epsilon. Saturday’s flight is estimated to cost in the region of 5.3 billion yen ($53 million), significantly lower than the 7 billion yen ($70 million) for an M-V, and such savings have been made primarily through the streamlining of launch procedures. It is anticipated that subsequent Epsilon launches may bring costs still lower, into the 3.0-3.8 billion yen ($30-38 million) bracket.

Japan has been flying solid-fueled “pencil” rockets since the mid-1950s, and Epsilon stands firmly upon the shoulders of previous titans, as well as utilizing new, cutting-edge technology. “We aim to greatly simplify the launch system by using artificial intelligence,” said Project Manager Yasuhiro Morita, quoted in a JAXA interview. Morita is a professor in the Department of Space Systems and Astronautics with the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), a subdivision of JAXA. “Today, a typical scenario is hundreds of people assembling at the launch center and working for several months in preparation for a launch. On the day of the launch, dozens of people are in the control room, monitoring every aspect. The Epsilon launch vehicle will drastically change this picture.” By running autonomous health and other checks, supported by artificial intelligence, it is hoped that control personnel with ultimately be able to run the whole show from a pair of laptop computers.

“Rockets use technology from many generations ago,” explained Morita, “so they are like a showcase of deficiencies. There has long been a notion that new technology should be tested over an extended period of time before being used in actual launch vehicles. Consequently, the latest artificial intelligence applications have not yet been employed in rockets. The Epsilon launch vehicle will be the first rocket with artificial intelligence that will perform checks and monitor its own operation autonomously.”

Moving forward from desktop and laptop computers, it is Morita’s hope that by 2017 the Epsilon will be in a position to “monitor and judge its own flight safety autonomously, so that we can remove the radar and antenna used to track and send commands to the rocket.” By assigning further artificial intelligence assets to the vehicle—including the capability to act as its own Range Safety Officer and destroy itself in the event of off-nominal events—the Epsilon will eliminate the need for expensive, ground-based hardware and further simplify launch and tracking facilities.

The SPRINT-A satellite undergoes final checkout, ahead of its scheduled launch aboard the first Epsilon rocket. Photo Credit: JAXA/ISAS
The SPRINT-A satellite undergoes final checkout, ahead of its scheduled launch aboard the first Epsilon rocket. Photo Credit: JAXA/ISAS

As the maiden flight of the Epsilon, Saturday’s mission has attracted a great deal of publicity, both in Japan and around the world. In April-May 2013, it was the subject of a New Launch Vehicle Message Posting Campaign. Some 5,812 messages—the vast majority in Japanese and a few hundred in other languages—were received as part of an effort to share individuals’ “expectations, hopes, dreams, or feelings toward our new launch vehicle.” JAXA then processed these messages into strings of small letters on the Epsilon itself, in order to “make people feel more familiar with space, gaining more understanding of and support for space programs.” According to JAXA, this was a key goal of the Epsilon project.

Testing and processing of the new rocket has gone relatively smoothly, with its upper stage motor static-fired in September 2011 to evaluate the performance of insulation material, followed by last October’s extension test of the second stage motor nozzle. More recently, in April 2013, it was reported that a full-scale model of Epsilon had been transferred from the maintenance tower to the launch pad to demonstrate rollout and other pre-launch protocols.

Liftoff on Saturday will begin with the ignition of the first-stage’s Nissan-built solid motor, producing an estimated 505,000 pounds of thrust. This will burn for about two minutes, after which the second stage—a modified version of the M-V’s M-34 upper stage, also solid-fueled, with an extendible nozzle—will pick up the thrust for 104 seconds to execute the next stage of the rocket’s climb to orbit. The third stage, based upon the KM-V2b upper stage from the M-V, will then fire for approximately 91 seconds, after which a hydrazine-fed small liquid propulsion system will provide the final boost. According to JAXA’s Epsilon press kit, this final stage will perform two burns and SPRINT-A will be separated from the vehicle about 61 minutes after launch.

The satellite is expected to operate for about a year in an orbit of 590-715 miles, inclined 31 degrees to the equator, from which it will observe the magnetospheric environments of Venus, Mars, and Jupiter. “Capturing the extreme ultraviolet rays emitted from a planet and its periphery, which cannot be observed from the ground, allows us to collect information on the atmosphere that flows into space and the magnetosphere covering the planet,” noted JAXA in its SPRINT-A mission brochure. “This enables us to analyze the composition of the atmosphere and the behavior of the magnetosphere. Our primary theme is each planet’s magnetosphere, the region where the magnetic field of a planet has influence.” Jupiter’s magnetic field is 10,000 times stronger than that of Earth and rotates on its axis at a high rate of around 10 hours per cycle, whereas those of Venus and Mars are far weaker. SPRINT-A will focus on the interactions between planetary magnetospheres and the solar wind.


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