TOKYO (AP) — A Japanese rocket carrying supplies for the International Space Station lifted off from a remote island Saturday on a mission designed to help fill a hole left by the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program.
The unmanned rocket was carrying a payload of nearly six tons of food, water, clothing and experimental equipment to the astronauts in orbit in the space station, an international project involving 15 nations. The rocket also was carrying cargo for NASA.
After docking with the ISS, dropping off its cargo and being loaded up with waste material, the rocket’s transfer vehicle, named “Kounotori2,” will be detached and burn itself up upon re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. Kounotori means white stork.
It is expected to reach the ISS on Jan. 27.
JAXA, Japan’s space agency, hopes the project will help it build expertise for similar low-cost ferrying missions.
Such projects have become more important now that the United States has scaled back its ability to launch supplies. Since 2009, the ISS has been manned by six astronauts, but keeping them fed and supplied has become a bigger challenge because of the retirement of the U.S. space shuttles.
NASA is linking up with commercial companies to launch future cargo expeditions.
Officials said the Kounotori mission, meanwhile, could also push forward manned flights of Japan’s own. JAXA is studying the possibility of reconfiguring the Kounotori vehicle for manned flight.
Japan’s space program has yet to attempt manned flight. Japan has a module attached to the space station that can be used by astronauts, but has relied on the United States to get them there.
It sent cargo on its first unmanned carrier to the ISS in 2009.
Money, more than technology, is generally seen as Japan’s biggest hurdle.
JAXA’s budget for last year was 180 billion yen ($2 billion), about one-fourteenth of what the U.S. spends on space exploration and less than half of what the EU spends, according to Japanese government estimates.
Even so, Japan boasts a reliable booster rocket in the domestically produced H-II series — the rocket used Saturday — and was one of the leaders in launching satellites.
But its program in recent years has been marred by setbacks.
Last month, a Japanese probe to Venus failed to reach orbit. Officials said they have not completely given up hope and are trying to reprogram the probe to try again in another five — or if that fails six — years.
Japanese scientists had been hopeful of success with the Venus probe after the country brought a probe back from a trip to an asteroid.
Japan has never succeeded in an interplanetary mission. It launched a mission to Mars in 1998 that was plagued by technical glitches and finally abandoned in 2003. Russia, the United States and the Europeans have successfully explored other planets.
Japan has also been overshadowed in recent years by China, which sent its first astronaut into space in 2003 and carried out its first spacewalk in 2008.