TOKYO — Japan launched a lunar mission on Thursday, overcoming several setbacks and delays to become the fifth country to go to the moon — just weeks after India — in a global race to better understand Earth’s closest neighbors.
The small unmanned Japanese spacecraft, or H2-A rocket, lifted off from the Tanegashima Space Center in southwestern Japan at 8:42 a.m. local time and flew over the Pacific Ocean. It is scheduled to enter lunar orbit in three or four months and land early next year.
The rocket is carrying two space missions: a new X-ray telescope that will help scientists better understand the origin of the universe, and a lightweight, high-precision moon lander that will serve as the basis for future lunar landing technology. The telescope separated at 8:56 am and the lunar landing at 9:29 am.
The reputation of Japan’s space program rested on Jupiter’s launch. Costly mistakes last year raised the stakes for launches and threatened Japan’s position as a leading global player in space exploration — especially after India successfully landed on the moon last month.
Officials at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) breathed a sigh of relief on Thursday, applauding after the final phase of the launch.
Last month, India landed a robotic spacecraft near the moon’s south pole, an area favored for holding water in the form of ice. A few days ago, a Russian vehicle hit the lunar surface on the country’s first lunar mission in nearly half a century. Last fall, China completed its Tiangong space station.
“This is a moment of truth for the Japanese space community,” said Kazuto Suzuki, a space policy expert at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Public Policy. The new technology introduced on Thursday will “open a new horizon for lunar exploration on a global scale, hence the success [lander] Bringing Japan into the first tier group.
Japan’s performance was also considered the country’s newestThe National Defense Strategy in Space was developed keeping in view the developments of China and Russia. In June, Japan adopted its first space defense blueprint to use space technology to improve its defense capabilities and information gathering systems.
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Jupiter’s lunar mission is the Smart Lander for the Exploration of the Moon (SLIM), also known as the “Moon Sniper” because of its highly precise landing technology. Japan aims to land the SLIM within 328 feet (100 meters) of its target location — much closer than conventional lunar landers, which usually have an accuracy of several kilometers.
The advanced imaging technology used in SLIM is an important part of Japan’s response to China’s space program. Data collected by SLIM will also be used by NASA’s Artemis program, the US-led effort to put astronauts on the surface of the Moon and establish a permanent presence there.
“The pinpoint landing technology is being tried by few in the world, so the competition will be fierce. But as far as we know, SLIM will be the world’s first,” JAXA’s project manager Shinichiro Sakai told reporters in June.
SLIM is expected to enter lunar orbit in about three to four months. In four to six months, the plan is to land in a small crater near the moon called Shioli. Experts said the lander will examine the moon’s origins and test technology critical to future lunar landing programs.
The X-ray telescope headed for the Moon is called the X-ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission (XRISM), a joint venture between JAXA, NASA and other organizations.
It’s a new generation of high-resolution imaging that will help scientists and astronomers better study stars, galaxies and black holes — including the hot plasma that makes up most of the universe.
Japan has made several attempts to reach the moon, including its Omodenashi project to land an ultrasmall probe. In November, Japan abandoned the project after failing to reestablish contact with the spacecraft. Earlier this year, the Tokyo-based space agency Space It also blocked the first Japanese private sector attempt to land on the moon.
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Japan’s space missions have suffered several setbacks in the past year.
Last October, the Epsilon-6 rocket failed following a malfunction after liftoff. The rocket was ordered to self-destruct within 10 minutes of launch due to misalignment.
In March, the second stage engine of a critical new rocket, the H-3, failed to ignite. It was also ordered to self-destruct within minutes.
The rocket is the first major upgrade to the country’s rocket program in more than 20 years. It is designed to help the government meet its goal of doubling the number of intelligence-gathering satellites to 10 by 2028.
Then in July, a new Epsilon S rocket engine exploded during testing of a second-stage engine at the Noshiro Rocket Test Center in Akita Prefecture. An explosion occurred within a minute of the test, blowing away part of a building on the site.
JAXA is investigating the cause of the accident, which could affect the planned launch of the first Epsilon S rocket in 2024.