Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency official Yuko Hoshikawa said the agency cancelled Tuesday's planned launch of the three-stage Epsilon rocket from a space centre on the southern Japan island of Kyushu. She said it was unclear when or if the launch would be rescheduled.

The cause of the problem is under investigation, Hoshikawa said.

The Epsilon is the first new rocket design for Japan since the H2A was introduced in 2001. The H2A continues to be Japan's primary rocket but officials are hoping development of the Epsilon will lead to improvements in the much more costly H2A program as well. Japan hopes to compete more aggressively in the international rocket-launching business.

The rocket was to carry the SPRINT-A, the first space telescope specifically designed to observe other planets. It is to be used to watch Venus, Mars and Jupiter.

According to JAXA, the Epsilon costs about 3.8 billion yen , one-third the cost of the H2A. The rocket is about 24 meters tall, half the size of the H2A, and can be assembled and readied for launch in just one week, one-sixth of the time required for the H2A.

The Epsilon rocket, which uses a solid-fuel propellant, is meant to broaden the range of space missions Japan is able to perform and lower the hurdles to space by streamlining the launch process. JAXA says the rocket's extensive use of computer technology means monitoring work that once required a fully staffed control room can now be done essentially on a single laptop.

"If we hope to make the access to space much easier, more sophisticated factors are required," project manager Yasuhiro Morita said in a pre-launch statement. "We are trying to make rocket launches much simpler and ordinary events."


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