TOKYO — Japan released the first pictures of the moon taken by its recently launched lunar orbiter on Tuesday, and announced plans to launch a lunar lander sometime in the next decade.
The announcement appears to up the ante in an international rush to study the moon — a space race that involves China and India as well as the United States.
Japan's 3-ton Kaguya orbiter was launched in mid-September and went into lunar orbit on Friday. On Tuesday, the spacecraft released the first of its two baby satellites, outfitted with instruments to measure the magnetic field on the moon's far side and study its gravitational field as well.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency released pictures of the mini-satellite's release as well as the spacecraft's own high-gain antenna with the moon's surface in the background.
Kaguya's yearlong mission will seek clues about the moon's origin and evolution, and also set the stage for a lander mission to come.
"We are aiming to carry out the project in the middle of the 2010s. It will examine geological features of the moon as well as natural resources available there," an official from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency told Reuters.
The Soviet Union was the first to achieve a soft landing on the moon, in 1966. So far, only the United States has landed piloted spacecraft, during its Apollo program. NASA plans a new lunar orbiter next year and is working on a permanent lunar station.
China plans to launch a moon orbiter this year and land a craft on the surface in 2010. India plans an orbiter next year and a piloted mission to the moon by 2020.
Japan's first explorer to land on the moon would consist of an unmanned lander, a lunar rover equipped with robotic arms and a data-relay satellite, Japanese space agency officials said. The project was expected to cost about $470 million, they said, similar to the cost of the current orbiter.
The Japanese space agency has said it hopes to send astronauts to the moon by 2025, although Japan has not yet attempted human spaceflight.
Japan's space program was in tatters in the late 1990s after two unsuccessful launches of a previous rocket, the H-2. Disaster followed in 2003 when Japan had to destroy an H-2A rocket carrying two spy satellites minutes after launch as it veered off course.
This report includes information from msnbc.com and Reuters.
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