Sat, Sep 15, 2007 - Page 1 News List

Japanese `princess' to orbit moon

SPACE MISSION The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency launched a lunar orbiter from a southern island that will collect data about the moon's origin and evolution

AGENCIES , TOKYO

Japan Exploration Agency's (JAXA) H-2A rocket, carrying a lunar orbiter, soars away from the Tanegashima Space Center on Tanegashima island yesterday.

PHOTO: AFP/ JIJI PRESS

Japan's first lunar orbiter successfully blasted into space yesterday on the most extensive mission to investigate the moon since the US Apollo program began nearly four decades ago, officials said.

A domestically developed rocket launched with no glitches from Tanegashima, the remote island where the agency's space center is located, at 10:31am carrying the country's hopes of restoring pride in its troubled space program.

The orbiter separated from the H-2A rocket about 45 minutes after it took off from the Space Center, the space agency said.

"The launch was a success," declared Kaoru Mamiya, vice president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in Tokyo.

"The probe detached from the rocket as expected 45 minutes after lift-off and all the subsequent phases were carried out correctly," said Yoshisada Takizawa, the head of the project.

The lunar orbiter, aiming to collect data for research of the moon's origin and evolution, will travel around the Earth before moving into an orbit of the moon early next month, officials said.

The agency says the one-year lunar mission, which is several years behind schedule because of technical mishaps, is the most extensive since the US Apollo program began in the 1960s, putting the first astronaut on the moon.

The explorer was named Kaguya after a beautiful princess who charms many men before ascending to her home, the moon, in a popular Japanese folk tale.

The ?55 billion (US$478 million) probe will consist of a main unit, which will orbit 100km above the moon, and two small satellites.

It will gather data on the distribution of chemical elements and minerals as well as on topographical and surface structures.

The mission aims to study the gravity field and environment of the moon while searching for hydrogen, which is required for water.

"Japan aims to build a station on the surface of the moon in 2025 and so we need to understand the moon. We need to develop the fundamental technology," said Satoki Kurokawa, another spokesman for the agency.

Japan has been expanding its space operations and has set a goal of sending an astronaut to the moon by 2020. It faced an embarrassing failure in November 2003, when it had to destroy a rocket carrying a spy satellite 10 minutes after lift-off because a booster failed to separate.

The setback came just a month after China became the third country to carry out a manned space mission. China is pressing ahead with a program that includes space walks and dockings.

With the lunar orbiter, Japan hopes to keep one step ahead of China and other regional rivals like India, which are also expected to launch similar probes soon.

"This program is very important for science throughout the world. If it is completed successfully, it will push back the frontiers of humanity beyond Earth and heighten Japan's technological status," said Hajime Inoue, director of space research at JAXA.

China is expected to launch its Chang'e 1 probe as early as this month, to be followed by India's Chandrayaan 1 later this year.

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