Predawn fire prompts cancellation of Japanese rocket launch to International Space Station

A fire broke out near a rocket launchpad on Tanegashima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture early Wednesday, prompting the cancelation of an unmanned rocket launch scheduled for the same day to deliver supplies to the International Space Station, the operator said.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. planned to launch the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s supply vessel Kounotori8 using an H-IIB rocket from the Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture at 6:33 a.m.

The Kounotori8 was being launched to deliver about 5.3 tons of supplies to astronauts at the space station, including food and water as well as batteries and devices needed for experiments, according to the agency.

Kounotori is the Japanese word for white stork.

Mitsubishi Heavy said it decided to cancel the launch to check for any damage to the rocket. There is only one launchpad suitable for an H-IIB rocket at the space center so the impact could be substantial if the fire caused serious damage.

Even if there is no damage, the next launch will likely be this weekend at the earliest.

“We feel great responsibility,” said Atsutoshi Tamura, a Mitsubishi Heavy executive in charge of Wednesday’s launch.

The company said it confirmed a fire was burning at around 3:05 a.m. at the foot of the launchpad, apparently near a vent designed to allow engine exhaust and flames to escape as the rocket takes off.

The space agency said it is the first time that one of its rocket launches has been delayed by fire, adding that the space station has sufficient food and other items so astronauts will not be unduly impacted by the delay.

The company said there were no abnormalities when the rocket was put on the launchpad Tuesday afternoon and that it has not confirmed there was any fuel leak.

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