Friday, October 5, 2007

Japan's lunar probe reaches orbit around moon

Japan's first lunar satellite successfully moved into orbit Friday on what officials call the most ambitious mission to study Earth's nearest neighbor since the U.S. Apollo project.

Japan's space agency said the probe, named after a folklore princess, was in high orbit over the moon and all was going well as it began a yearlong project to map and study the lunar surface.

The announcement marks a major step forward for Japan, which was once considered the leading space-faring nation in Asia but is now struggling to keep up with rival China.

In an increasingly heated Asian space race, both China and India plan lunar probes of their own. China's could be launched in the next few months, while India's is to blast off next April. Friday's announcement, ironically, came one day after the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Russian Sputnik satellite, which marked the beginning of the race to the moon between the Soviet Union and the United States.

The mission, which was delayed for four years, involves placing the main satellite called ``Kaguya,'' after a legendary moon princess _ in a circular orbit at an altitude of about 100 kilometers (60 miles) and deploying two smaller satellites in elliptical orbits, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

The data they send back will be used for mapping the moon and studying its origin and evolution. Takizawa said it will begin its observation phase in mid- to late-December.

Japan launched its first satellite in 1970 and has marked several major scientific coups in space including a probe that made a visit with an asteroid. Its domestically produced H-2A rocket is one of the world's most advanced and consistent.

But it has also been beset by delays and mishaps.

Earlier this year, one of its four spy satellites became unresponsive due to apparent electrical problems. The other three satellites were functioning normally, but the failure left its multibillion dollar, long-awaited spy network with a significant hole.