Japan is looking to the moon to regain some face.
After a series of long delays, the country will launch its first lunar orbiter in August for a one-year mission intended to both explore earth's nearest neighbor and re-establish this country as one of Asia's leading space-faring nations following China's high-profile successes.
Japan's space agency, JAXA, announced last week that the much-delayed SELENE probe will be launched from its remote spaceport on the southern island of Tanegashima sometime in August aboard an H-2A rocket, the mainstay of Japan's space program.
The SELENE project -- which JAXA claims is the largest lunar mission since the US Apollo program -- involves placing a main satellite in orbit at an altitude of about 100km and deploying two smaller satellites in polar orbits. Data gathered by the probes will be used to help researchers study the origin and evolution of the moon.
"This mission will involve observation of the whole moon, not just parts of it," said JAXA spokesman Satoki Kurokawa. "It is a very ambitious project."
The mission is a stepping stone in Japan's plan to more aggressively pursue space objectives -- including a lunar landing and, possibly, manned missions in space. To raise public awareness, Japan's space agency is collecting names to be launched aboard the probes, along with a brief message, in a "Wish Upon the Moon" campaign.
Officials are hoping this wish will finally come true.
Japan leaped ahead of Asia by launching the region's first satellite in 1972, but China has recently assumed the lead in Asia's accelerating space race.
China launched its first manned space flight in 2003. A second mission in 2005 put two astronauts into orbit for a week, and a third manned launch is planned for next year. This year, China also plans to launch a probe that will orbit the moon.
Earlier this month, the country launched a Long March 3-A rocket that sent a navigation satellite into orbit as part of its effort to build a global positioning system, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
Japan, meanwhile, has been struggling to keep up.
Though its H-2A rocket has proved to be a reliable launch vehicle -- despite a flamboyant failure in 2003 -- its space forays have been shadowed by failure.
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