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Space

Space on a shoestring: Japan launches new Epsilon rocket

Japan has launched a comparatively cheap and simple solid-fuel rocket on its first mission. The Epsilon successfully delivered its payload, a telescope for remote observation of planets, about an hour after takeoff.

The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) on Saturday celebrated the delayed launch of a new rocket that it hopes will provide a cheaper, more effective way to send satellites into space.

The maiden voyage of the three-stage Epsilon rocket was aired on Japanese television. Epsilon launched from the Uchinoura Space Center in Kagoshima, on Japan's south island of Kyushu, at 2 p.m. local time (0500 UTC) on Saturday.

"The launch vehicle flew smoothly and, at about 61 minutes and 39 seconds after liftoff, the separation of the SPRINT-A was confirmed," JAXA announced on its website.

Japan launches new type of rocket

The SPRINT-A telescope, Epsilon's first ever payload, will be used to remotely monitor planets including Venus, Mars and Jupiter from its orbit around Earth.

Budget ballistics

Formerly called the Advanced Solid Rocket, the Epsilon uses solid fuel, a less powerful but more cost-effective source than liquid-fuel rockets. This throwback prototype is JAXA's first new model since the launch of the first H2A rocket in 2001.

The liquid-fueled H2A remains JAXA's primary rocket, but Epsilon is suitable for delivering items to low-earth orbit with considerably less cost and complexity. Furthermore, an improved four-stage version of the model is planned that should have greater range and be able to carry more load.

Epsilon is half the size of the H2A, and JAXA reported that production and development cost three times less - at 3.8 billion yen (29 million euros, $38 million). The hard-fuel rocket can be assembled and readied for launch within a week, about six times more quickly than JAXA's flagship model. The Epsilon is also considerably simpler to operate, not least because of the onboard computer's ability to autonomously perform some of its own launch checks. To demonstrate that the model no longer required a major mission control room, the Epsilon was launched on Saturday using just a pair of laptop computers.

msh/mkg (AFP, AP, dpa)

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