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Japan Launches Unmanned Probe To Moon, Asian Space Race Intensifies

By | September 17, 2007

      The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) launched an unmanned probe to the moon, notching up Asian competition involving the pale orb, according to the Japan Times.

      Named Kaguya after a mythical Japanese moon princess, the probe was lifted by an H-IIA rocket from the Tanegashima base.

      According to JAXA, the probe entered the correct orbit, and engines and navigation systems appeared to function well. Eventually, the probe will orbit the moon beginning in about three weeks.

      The Japanese initiative comes as the United States is beginning to develop a spacecraft, the Orion-Ares, that won’t take American astronauts even to low Earth orbit until around 2015, and won’t return U.S. space personnel to the moon until the end of the next decade.

      Meanwhile, China, is seen likely to place astronauts on the moon around then if not before (China also is planning to launch an unmanned Chang’e 1 mission to the moon before the end of this year). And Japan and the Europeans may eventually send manned missions to the moon, before the United States.

      In the launch last week, the Japanese rocket and Selenological and Engineering Explorer spacecraft looked like a fiery minaret racing upward through the sky as it ascended to orbit.

      While JAXA has handled a dozen prior launches, it handed this one to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, maker of the rocket, in hopes of gaining cost reductions and a better competitive position in attracting more launch business to Japan.

      However, some problems emerged in this finally successful launch. For example, it was four years late, with the most recent delay of a hoped-for launch last month caused by improperly installed parts.

      An earlier Japanese probe, in 1990, flew by the moon, but the new probe will orbit the nearest neighbor to Earth.

      According to JAXA, the $27.809 million Kaguya project is the largest lunar mission since the U.S. Apollo program in terms of overall scope and ambition, outpacing the former Soviet Luna program and NASA programs such as Clementine and Lunar Prospector in the 1990s.

      Kaguya encompasses a main craft of about three tons, which will orbit the moon for about a year, using various sensors to examine lunar topography and other items. It also will deploy two smaller satellites that will orbit the moon.

      But the greatest impact of the Japanese moon shot is that the spacecraft will carry high definition cameras that will capture pictures of the Earth rising over the moon, video likely to electrify imaginations of populations across the globe, much the way that people across the planet were mesmerized by pictures sent from the moon during the long-ago U.S. Apollo program.

      The imminent Chinese lunar probe also is expected to study topography of the moon.

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