TOKYO – A Japanese rocket carrying supplies for the International Space Station successfully lifted off from a remote island Saturday on a mission designed to help fill a hole left by the retirement of NASA's space shuttle program.

The unmanned rocket — Japan's second flight to the space station — was ferrying nearly 6 tons of food, water, clothing and experimental equipment to the astronauts in orbit aboard the international project involving 15 nations. The rocket also was carrying cargo for NASA.

After docking with the space station, dropping off its cargo and being loaded up with waste material, the rocket's transfer vehicle, named "Kounotori2," will be detached and burn itself up upon re-entering Earth's atmosphere. Kounotori means white stork in Japanese.

Applause broke out at the control center on Tanegashima Island as officials announced that the launch phase was a success. Tracking was switched to a center in Guam as the vehicle moved rapidly away from Japan.

Kounotori2 is expected to reach the space station on Jan. 27.

JAXA, Japan's space agency, hopes the project will help it build expertise for similar low-cost ferrying missions and push forward manned flights of Japan's own.

Cargo missions for the International Space Station have become more important now that the United States has scaled back its ability to launch supplies. Since 2009, the station has been manned by six astronauts, but keeping them fed and supplied has become a bigger challenge because of the retirement of the U.S. space shuttles.

NASA is linking up with commercial companies to launch future cargo expeditions.

JAXA officials say they are studying the possibility of reconfiguring the Kounotori vehicle — which is about the size of a large passenger bus — for manned flight.

Japan's space program has yet to attempt manned flight. Japan has a module attached to International Space Station that can be used by astronauts, but has relied on the United States to get them there. A Russian Soyuz is to take the next Japanese astronaut to the space station in May.

Japan sent cargo on its first unmanned carrier to the international station in 2009.