Japan mulls delaying launch of Mars moon probe from 2024 to 2026

Japan is considering postponing a project that aims to retrieve the world's first Martian moon surface samples from 2024 to 2026 due to issues with its new flagship H3 rocket, which is set to facilitate the probe's launch, sources close to the matter said Sunday.

The delay would inevitably crush plans for the probe from Martian Moons Exploration project, or MMX, to arrive in the Martian system during the 2025 World Exposition in Osaka and livestream detailed images to the expo venue, an envisioned highlight of the event.

The development comes following the failed inaugural launch in March of Japan's next-generation H3 rocket, under development by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., which also resulted in the loss of a key satellite it carried as its payload.

The second H3 rocket, equipped with measures to prevent a recurrence, is set to be launched by March 2024, but its payload has been modified as a precaution.

Plans to carry the MMX probe and satellites on the third H3 rocket or later will depend on whether the launch of the second rocket succeeds.

The probe can only be launched to orbit around Mars around September 2024 due to variations in the distance of the red planet from Earth. The next suitable window will be around 2026, but rescheduling may prove difficult due to other satellite launches that are of higher priority.

The probe is currently scheduled to be launched in September 2024 and arrive in the Martian system around August 2025. It will then land on one of Mars' two moons, Phobos, to collect a surface sample and return to Earth around 2029.

Phobos is believed to have accumulated rocks that originated from Mars, with the sample expected to help shed light on the evolution process of the Martian system.

While the United States, Europe, and China also have plans to retrieve samples from the Martian system, difficulties faced by all means that Japan still has a high chance of being the first in the world to achieve the feat regardless of the two-year delay.

The Japanese government had also considered using a reliable rocket from U.S. firm SpaceX instead of the H3 to launch its MMX probe, but even this option would not have made the 2024 deadline.

© Kyodo News