Tokyo (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The Japanese lunar probe SELENE—short for Selenological and Engineering Explorer—entered orbit around the moon after completing a complicated navigational manoeuvre yesterday, officials at JAXA, the Japanese space agency, said. Beginning in December, the three-tonne probe will conduct a year-long observational mission of the lunar surface after gradually moving into a lower orbit. Japanese researchers expect it to collect useful data for studying the moon's origin and evolution.
The mission involves placing a main satellite (called Kaguya after a legendary moon princess) in a circular orbit about 100 kilometres above the lunar surface, after which two smaller satellites will be deployed in elliptical orbits, the agency said.
Launched on September 14 at a cost of 32 billion yen (US$ 279 million) it is the most ambitious lunar mission since America's Apollo moon landings.
At present an Asian space race is accelerating. Japan launched its first satellite in 1970 but China was the first Asian power to send a man into space in 2003.
China also blew up an old satellite with a land-based anti-satellite missile, and is expected to launch its first lunar probe by the end of the year.
India too has said it will launch its own unmanned lunar mission in 2008, followed up by a manned space mission by 2015, using indigenous systems and technology.
Japan launched a lunar probe in 1990, but that was a flyby mission. Another shot scheduled for 2004 was cancelled following a string of mechanical and fiscal problems. Now it has been expanding its space operations and aims to send an astronaut to the Moon by 2025
To garner public interest, the probe carries sheets engraved with messages from 412,627 people around the world in what space officials called the "Wish upon the Moon" campaign.