Japan's space programme has suffered another severe blow with the failure of an M-5 rocket launch and the loss of the Astro-E astronomical observation satellite on 10 January.

The failure is being attributed to a first-stage nozzle malfunction, and comes three months after the ¥34.3 billion ($320 million) in-flight destruction of an H-2 rocket carrying the transport ministry's MT-SAT satellite in mid-November and the subsequent cancellation or suspension of NASDA programmes, to focus on the development of the simplified H-2A (Flight International, 25-31 January).

The M-5 lifted off from Kagoshima Space Centre in south-western Japan at 10.30, but failed to reach its intended speed. It released the satellite at an altitude of 80km (50 miles), although it was reportedly intended to reach an orbit between 270km and 550km.

According to Japan's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), the failure has cost ¥18 billion, including the ¥11.6 billion cost of the satellite. The 1.7t Astro-E was the fifth satellite developed by ISAS, which is part of the education ministry.

ISAS officials say the failure may have been caused by damage to the first stage nozzle, built by Nissan's aerospace division. The launch had been delayed since 8 February, first by bad weather, then by a wiring fault at a tracking station in Miyazaki prefecture.

This was the first failure involving an M-5 booster, which has had two successes since 1997.

Source: Flight International