Japan space shuttle takes a small step backwards

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The Independent Online


Tokyo - Japan's space shuttle programme took one step forward and one back yesterday when a rocket carrying an experimental plane was launched successfully but the plane was lost at sea on re-entry.

Space agency officials said all went well with the J1 rocket test carrying the Hypersonic Flight Experiment (Hyflex) plane until the plane splashed into the ocean on schedule 20 minutes later. Floats which automatically deploy to support the plane until it can be recovered failed to work and the craft sank. Crucial data on the maximum temperature on re-entry to the earth's atmosphere, togther with information on damage to the craft, was lost.

The total cost for development and production of the plane was 6.4bn yen (pounds 42.5m).

Hyflex was designed to collect data for use in developing Hope, a Japanese version of the US space shuttle. Hope, which Japan plans to use in unmanned explorations of the moon by the end of the century, would be launched from a more powerful Japanese rocket.

After four delays since 1 February because of technical problems and bad weather, the 33-metre J1 rocket carrying Hyflex was launched from the Tanegashima Space Centre on the southwestern tip of Japan's main island of Honshu at 8am.

The plane successfully detached from the top of the rocket and sent back data until it plunged into the sea northeast of Chichijima Island 650 miles south of Tokyo.