A Japanese satellite-carrying rocket failed at launch on Wednesday, with the country's space agency ordering the Epsilon launch vehicle to self-destruct just minutes after liftoff as it deviated from its intended trajectory.
The development marked Japan's first rocket launch failure since November 2003, when an H2A rocket was deliberately destroyed shortly after liftoff and dealt a blow to an agency looking to expand its uptake of commercial satellites for its launches.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency sent the command at 9:57 a.m. after the Epsilon-6 rocket lifted off from Uchinoura Space Center near the southern tip of the southwestern main island of Kyushu around 9:50 a.m. It was carrying eight satellites developed by private and public entities, including universities.
In a press conference after the failed launch, the agency said the decision to send the self-destruct order was made after the rocket deviated from its intended position and could not place the satellites in orbit.
There were no immediate reports of injury or property damage due to the self-destruction, a science ministry official told a task force meeting held at the ministry.
According to the space agency, the rocket apparently crashed down into waters off the eastern coast of the Philippines and sank to the bottom of the ocean, making chances of recovery slim.
JAXA said it will continue investigating the cause of the irregularity that led to the mission being aborted and establish a task force to help with the investigation.
JAXA President Hiroshi Yamakawa said it was undeniable the blunder would affect various plans but stressed the agency would "do its utmost to restore trust" in it.
The agency is set to launch its new flagship H3 rocket within fiscal 2022, after already having been delayed twice before, as well as an upgraded Epsilon model slated to take off in fiscal 2023.
"The investigation could delay plans for satellite launches by a year," said Akira Sawaoka, honorary president of Daido University, who is well-versed in space development. "Such delays are harsh in the midst of intensifying international competition."
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told a press conference that the government took the incident "seriously," adding it was "not in a situation to speculate" whether it would impact Japan's overall space policy at this point.
JAXA last issued a self-destruct command in November 2003 when the launch of a satellite-carrying H2A rocket was aborted after one of its two boosters failed to separate.
Wednesday's was the first such order sent to a rocket in the artificial intelligence technology-equipped Epsilon series, which was introduced in 2013 and has seen successful launches with the previous five models.
It was also the first Epsilon rocket to have private satellites among its cargo, including two developed by Fukuoka-based space engineering venture iQPS Inc.
Takaya Inamori, an associate professor of Nagoya University's School of Aerospace Engineering, was involved in the development of a microsatellite aboard the rocket called Magnaro.
Inamori said although nothing in the industry is "100 percent" certain, he was "very disappointed as we had been hoping to demonstrate new technology."
Japanese rockets are comparatively expensive to launch, and one of their major strengths is meant to be their reliability.
Wednesday's launch was delayed from its originally scheduled slot on Friday due to unfavorable satellite positioning that could have made tracking the rocket's location difficult.
The Epsilon-6 rocket is 26 meters long and weighs 95.6 tons. It is designed to be an improved final entry in the Epsilon series.
With greater use of miniaturized satellites expected, JAXA has eschewed liquid fuel rockets for the solid fuel Epsilon series, which offers advantages in the form of simpler construction, shorter development times and briefer launch intervals.