During the last preparations for the launch of an HTV cargo ship to the International Space Station (ISS), a fire broke out on Tuesday at the base of a Japanese H-2B rocket. Water was sprayed on the pad and the fire was finally extinguished, but the launch was postponed until inspections and work had been done to find out what repairs might be needed.
The cause of the fire was not immediately known, but a spokeswoman for The Rocket Manufacturer, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, said no injuries were reported. The HTV cargo ship carrying spare batteries for the ISS solar power system and 2.5 tons of crew material and equipment suffered no obvious damage.
Open flame near a rocket loaded with nearly 400,000 pounds of liquid hydrogen and oxygen propellants with four solid fuel boosters may be catastrophic ̵
Taking off from the picturesque Tanegashima Space Center, south of Japan's southern Kyushu Island, was targeted for 17:33 EDT (6:33 pm, Wednesday local time).
A live YouTube feed showing the rocket on the launch pad appeared normal until about 14:05. EDT (3:05 am local time) when a bright orange flame suddenly erupted at or near the base of the rocket. Moments later, jets of water began to soak the back of the booster and its mobile launch stand.
Hydrogen gas can burn invisibly, and the water continued to flow even after clearing the visible flames. More than 90 minutes into the incident, a Japanese loudspeaker announcement said, "We're trying to put out a fire."
During the launch campaign on Tuesday, the H-2B rocket had a flawless record in seven previous HTV Space Station flights set up cargo ships. The space station is currently well served, and a delay in the arrival of HTV-8 cargo into the laboratory complex is unlikely to affect the crew. However, the launch delay on Tuesday threatens to throw a wrench into an already tight schedule aboard the ISS, depending on how long the rocket is on the ground.
The crew of the station prepared for two and possibly three spacewalks to install the six new batteries supplied by the HTV. less efficient batteries in the solar power system of the laboratory.
The Battery Change Space Walks should begin at the end of this month, between the arrival of three new crew members aboard a Soyuz Ferry on September 25 and the departure of three more on October 3 and the first of five and possibly six spacewalks November, to repair a poor high-energy physics experiment known as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer.
Northrop Grumman plans to launch a Cygus cargo ship October 21, followed by a SpaceX replenishment mission in early December. Against this backdrop, Boeing prepares its crew-ferry CST-100 Starliner for a long awaited test flight to the station last fall or early winter.