TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan’s first lunar probe began to orbit the moon on Friday, getting off to a smooth start in a new space race with China, India and the United States.
Nicknamed Kaguya after a fairy-tale princess, the three-tonne explorer orbited the Earth twice before successfully entering its orbit around the moon, Japan’s space agency said. Kaguya was launched in mid-September after a long delay.
The explorer will take another two weeks to move closer to the moon, after which preparations will begin for full-scale observation to start in December.
“Our priority for now is to place it into its final orbit,” a spokesman said. “After that, we can activate the instruments for observation to take place.”
Japanese scientists say the 55 billion yen ($472.3 million) Selenological and Engineering Explorer, or SELENE, is the world’s most technically complex mission to the moon since the U.S. Apollo program decades ago.
The mission consists of a main orbiter and two baby satellites equipped with 14 observation instruments designed to examine surface terrain, gravity and other features for clues on the origin and evolution of the moon.
SELENE also carries a high-definition television camera to shoot the Earth “rising” from the Moon’s horizon, footage of which will be sent back to Earth. SELENE will orbit the moon for about a year until it runs out of fuel.
The launch is about four years behind schedule due to rocket failures and technical glitches.
China plans to launch a lunar orbiter called Chang’e One in the second half of this year to take 3D images, while India is planning its first unmanned mission to orbit the moon in 2008, powered by a locally built rocket.
The United States plans to launch a lunar orbiter next year.
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.