JAXA's Epsilon Rocket Too Smart; Cancels its Own Launch
On August 27, Japan’s next-gen, supertech Epsilon-1 rocket, along with its SPRINT-A satellite cargo, remained unlaunched after the live televised countdown. Perhaps not so very next-gen, nor supertech? Well, the humans forgot about a signal delay, and the rocket aborted the launch. Who’s that on?
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Smartrocket Aborts with 19 Seconds to Go...
In the final moments of last Tuesday’s launch from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)’s Uchinoura Space Center in southwestern Japan - approximately 1100 km/683 miles southwest of Tokyo as the flying thing flies - the Epsilon-1 rocket, carrying the SPRINT-A orbital exploration platform, detected then unknown irregularities in things that should have been regular. It’s the second launch delay this summer (our coverage). Investigation & analysis ensued.
Turns out that, while somewhat overly dramatic, it’s not entirely inaccurate to say that Epsilon’s “artificial intelligence” autonomously aborted the launch after detecting a problem. It would be wildly overdramatic, however, to cite this as evidence of Japan’s shiny new rocket being unready, or perhaps not so high-tech after all. Not to excessively anthropomorphize the whole affair, but the rocket didn’t make a mistake or have any faults in and of itself, it did, however, expose an oversight in the communication/synchronization processes that the humans missed.
Don’t Blame the A.I., Man!
According to an August 30 press release, JAXA believes that a 0.7-second signal delay between the rocket’s internal control and diagnostic system’s processor and that of the remote launch control prompted the mistaken report of an attitude or posture irregularity, i.e., “Hey guys, the rocket’s like, you know, aimed in the wrong direction.” While that diagnosis proved inaccurate, it nonetheless alerted engineers to the overlooked signal delay issue. So, they’re fixing that.
Why’s Japan Making a New Rocket?
J-space agencies have been hammering away at various iterations of solid propellant, Epsilon-like rockets for more than a decade (formerly, the M-V Launch Vehicle). In JAXA’s words, the project seeks to:
“...build a system which will allow the frequent launch of launch vehicles by largely-reducing operational costs through enhancing aspects of operational efficiency, such as assembly and inspection. Through increased launch opportunities, we anticipate that space development activity will increase. The biggest goal of the Epsilon Launch Vehicle is to make space more accessible as rocket launches are made easier.”
The key advancement is the vehicle’s ability to do self-diagnosing pre-flight checks and balances. So like, you know in the movies where there’s that big half-circle room full of pocket protectored rocket scientists staring at their monitors and/or the big view screen, and then minutes before launch, each team leader sounds off:
“Weather is a go!"
"Avionics is a go!"
"Plyometrics is a go!"
"Neopilates is a go!”
...those guys are replaced by Epsilon’s on-board diagnostics. Crudely described, the Epsilon system makes launching a satellite into orbit as easy as some dude clicking “Launch Rocket Now” on a laptop. Epsilon then takes a good look at itself and decides Go or No-Go (no, in this case).
That’s the goal - through this very streamlined, high-performance, low-cost system, JAXA hopes to get a bigger chunk of the getting stuff into space business - stuff like the Spectroscopic Planet Observatory for Recognition of Interaction of Atmosphere (SPRINT-A) satellite. Which is now stuck on earth observing only the inside of Epsilon.
It is Rocket Science, After All
JAXA’s currently working to compensate for the 0.7-second processor delay, and with good weather are hoping for a re-do before the end of the month (the preferred launch window closes on September 30).
Stay tuned - we’ll keep you hip.
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