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Japan today used a Mitsubishi H-2B rocket to successfully launch an unmanned cargo ship to ISS.
The cargo ship will take five days to rendezvous and dock with ISS. Its most interesting piece of cargo is a small capsule with a heat shield, designed to return experiment samples to Earth.
JAXA says the the capsule has an internal volume of about 30 liters, and astronauts could load up to 44 pounds (20 kilograms) of specimens inside the landing craft, which features a thermos-like container to store refrigerated biological samples. That is a fraction of the carrying capacity of the Dragon capsule, but the new HTV Small Return Capsule will offer station managers a new way to make sure time-critical items can return to Earth for analysis.
Astronauts will assemble the return capsule after the HTV arrives at the station, and mount it into position over the HTV’s forward hatch for deployment once the supply ship leaves the station.
The capsule, which carries no engines of its own, will jettison after the HTV completes its deorbit burn. The re-entry craft will deploy a parachute and splash down in the Pacific Ocean, where recovery teams will retrieve it and bring it back to Japan for inspections.
The leaders in the 2018 launch race:
5 Europe (Arianespace)
For Japan to be tied with Europe this late in the year either indicates that Europe is sagging, or Japan is growing. I suspect it is partly both. In the national rankings China still leads the U.S. 25 to 24.