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Japan counts down to lunar probe launch

Japan is preparing to launch this week its first lunar explorer, in a bid to get the country’s space program back on track after a string of failures in the last decade.
This illustration, released from Japan E
This illustration shows a lunar observation satellite "Kaguya" to be launched  by H-IIA rocket at Tanegashima Space Center. Afp / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: Reuters

Japan is preparing to launch this week its first lunar explorer, in a bid to get the country’s space program back on track after a string of failures in the last decade.

Japanese scientists are also hoping the project will keep them one small step ahead of China and India, both of which are also planning lunar missions.

They say the $484 million project to launch the three-tone Kaguya, also known as the Selenological and Engineering Explorer (SELENE), is the world’s most technically complex mission to the moon since the U.S. Apollo program decades ago.

“This is the first major step towards our goal of operating a manned space station on the moon by 2025,” said Shinichi Sobue, senior engineer at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

“Kaguya will do the first job for Japan of orbiting an astronomical object other than Earth.”

Nicknamed after a moon princess in an ancient Japanese fairy-tale, Kaguya consists of a main orbiter and two baby satellites equipped with 14 observation instruments designed to examine surface terrain, gravity and other lunar features for clues on the origin and evolution of the moon.

A Japanese H-2A rocket carrying Kaguya is to lift off from the tiny Pacific island of Tanegashima, 600 miles (960 kilometers) south of Tokyo, at 0131 GMT on Friday (9:31 p.m. ET Thursday).

The lunar explorer is scheduled to separate from the rocket about 45 minutes after liftoff before orbiting the Earth twice and then traveling 237,500 miles (380,000 kilometers) to the moon.

Kaguya also carries a high-definition television camera to shoot Earth “rising” from the moon’s horizon, footage of which will be sent back to Earth. Kaguya will orbit the moon for about a year until it runs out of fuel.

The buildup hasn’t all been smooth. The launch is about four years behind schedule due to rocket failures and technical glitches.

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.

Kaguya holds key
“We have revamped the rockets after the mishaps and things are in good shape now,” JAXA’s Sobue said. “As for the satellites, we have improved the quality to such a level that we don’t expect to see similar failures.”

But some experts say Japan may make an early exit from the space race with China and India if anything goes wrong.

“If the Kaguya project ends in failure, Japan won’t be able to do such a project for quite a long time,” said Hideo Nagasu, former head of the National Aerospace Laboratory of Japan.

China plans to launch a lunar orbiter called Chang’e 1 in the second half of 2007 to take 3-D images, and it aims to land an unmanned vehicle on the moon by 2010.

India is planning its first unmanned mission to orbit the moon in 2008, powered by a locally built rocket. It is also discussing sending a person to the moon by 2020.

The United States plans to launch a lunar orbiter next year.

Astronauts next?
Japan wants to do its own manned space flight, but experts say this will be easier said than done.

“It will take a very long time before Japan can actually launch a man into space,” said Nagasu. “A concrete project to send a man to the moon on its own has yet to be nurtured.”

In 2003, China became only the third country after the former Soviet Union and the United States to launch a man into space aboard its own rocket.

“China is one step ahead of Japan in terms of manned space rockets,” Nagasu said. “I believe China’s space program is clearly linked to the country’s strategic (military) policy.”

Nagasu and JAXA officials said Japan would probably need to rely on U.S. spacecraft to land a man on the moon.

Nagasu added that Japan’s 1969 parliamentary resolution limiting the use of space to non-military purposes was a stumbling block for the space program, but JAXA officials this will never change.

“We have no military factors in mind at all,” Sobue said. ”We want to give children dreams.”