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Japanese MMX mission to Mars satellites postponed

The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced this week that it will be postponing the launch of the highly-anticipated Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) mission until 2026, a two-year setback from original 2024 target. The delayed inaugural flight of JAXA’s next-generation H3 rocket has forced a recalculation of MMX’s launch timeline given the brief interplanetary launch windows. Significant investments already made into MMMX’s development will sustain while the H3 booster undergoes redevelopment.

Initially, MMX aimed to launch in September 2024 timed with a rare Earth-Mars orbit alignment needed to optimize the spacecraft’s interplanetary transit. However, following the dramatic failure of the H3 rocket’s debut test flight in March, JAXA faced delays selecting and qualifying a replacement launch vehicle. Missing the 2024 window consequently pushes things back until at least 2026 when orbits realign favorably again for the Martian voyage.

Trailblazing Mission to Explore Martian Moons The MMX probe represents Japan’s pioneering effort to comprehensively study Mars’ mysterious moons Phobos and Deimos, targeting a 2025 arrival. Among core mission objectives, it will attempt collecting physical surface samples from otherworldly Phobos and survey geological characteristics for clues illuminating the tiny moons’ origins.

Leading theories speculate Mars’ moons could constitute captured asteroids, or alternatively debris created from a massive ancient impact event on Mars. MMX’s investigations will provide pivotal evidence disentangling plausible formation hypotheses. The mission also offers technology demonstrations assisting future exploration like landing guidance and sample containment.

Following launch, MMX should reach Mars orbit by August 2025 with ambitions to coincide with Japan’s World Expo hosting. From there, complex series of orbital maneuvers bring MMX to Phobos where it will gather over 10 grams of physical specimens before pivoting to examine Deimos. Eventually, a return capsule will launch on a Mars-Earth trajectory for atmospheric reentry in July 2029 carrying Phobos material samples for eagerly awaiting scientists.

Engineers Continue Full-Throttle Development Despite Delay While the multi-year postponement represents a setback slowing mission milestones, JAXA notes engineers will press forward assembling spacecraft components and integrating the suite of seven highly-specialized scientific instruments provided by international partners. Gearing up to capitalize on the next feasible Earth-Mars geometry arrangement in 2026, ongoing work sustains momentum towards getting launch-ready again soon.

Contributions from NASA, French Space Agency (CNES), and German Aerospace Center (DLR) boost MMX’s scientific capabilities and signal strong global interest in unlocking secrets of Mars’ diminutive moons. When the solar system aligned for launch in 2024, program officials felt extremely confident in mission-critical systems nearing operational readiness. Maintaining project development progress ensures Japan can essentially pick up where they left off when 2026’s launch window reopens.

H3 Rocket Woes JAXA’s brand new H3 rocket chosen to boost MMX represented the country’s best hope becoming price competitive in the international launch market. After delays, its unsuccessful debut test flight in March 2023 fell disastrously short of expectations ending prematurely without achieving primary objectives.

Now JAXA scrambles working towards another test launch attempt by March 2024 before the option of actually entrusting costly flagship payloads like MMX to the booster. Until resolved, lack of a qualified large rocket constrained selecting interim launch plans. Strategically delaying the Mars mission protects against another embarrassment losing MMX to rocket deficiencies.

Through the outstanding reliability of its earlier H-II rocket family, Japan built formidable launch credentials as a spacefaring nation. But after years developing the even larger H3 as a challenger offering sought-after heavy lift capability at competitive costs, its surprising failure jeopardizes near-term Martian ambitions like MMMX pioneers. Still, the country’s space program aims to persevere demonstrating trademark persistence until the rocket and satellite problems get rectified.

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