December 7, 2023


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The launch of the Japanese H2-A rocket heading towards the moon for a landing attempt

TOKYO — Japan launched a lunar mission on Thursday, overcoming numerous failures and delays to become the fifth country to head to the moon — just weeks after India — in a global race to better understand Earth’s nearest neighbour.

Japan’s small unmanned spacecraft, or H2-A rocket, lifted off at 8:42 a.m. local time from the Tanegashima Space Center in southwestern Japan and flew over the Pacific Ocean. It is scheduled to enter the lunar orbit within three to four months and land early next year.

The rocket carries two space missions: a new X-ray telescope to help scientists better understand the origins of the universe, and a lightweight, high-resolution lunar lander that will serve as the basis for future lunar landing technology. The telescope separated at 8:56 am, and the lunar lander separated at 9:29 am.

The reputation of Japan’s space program was on the line with Thursday’s rocket launch. A series of costly misses over the past year have raised the stakes for the launch and threatened Japan’s position as a leading global player in space exploration – especially in the wake of India’s successful moon landing last month.

Officials at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) breathed a sigh of relief Thursday, applauding after the final step of the launch.

And last month, India landed a robotic spacecraft near the moon’s south pole, a coveted region that contains water in the form of ice. A few days ago, a Russian spacecraft crashed into the surface of the moon in the country’s first lunar mission in nearly half a century. Last fall, China completed construction of the Tiangong space station.

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“It’s 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. And the new technology, which was launched on Thursday, “will open new horizons for lunar exploration on a global scale, and therefore its success will open new horizons for lunar exploration on a global scale.” [lander] He will put Japan in the top-tier group.”

Japan’s performance was also important given the new situation in the country The National Security Strategy in Space, which was developed with a focus on the progress made by China and Russia. In June, Japan adopted its first Space Security Blueprint to improve its defense capabilities and information-gathering systems using space technology.

The moon beckons again, and this time NASA wants to stay

Thursday’s lunar mission is the Intelligent Lunar Investigation Landing Vehicle (SLIM), also called “Moon Sniper” because of its ultra-precise landing technology. Japan aims to land on the moon within 328 feet (100 meters) of its target location, which is 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 the Chinese space program. The data collected through SLIM will also be used for NASA’s Project Artemis, a US-led effort to put astronauts on the surface of the moon and build a sustainable presence there.

“Some people in the world are experimenting with precision landing technology, so the competition will be fierce. But as far as we know, SLIM will be the first of its kind in the world,” Shinichiro Sakai, project manager of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, told reporters in June.

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SLIM is expected to enter lunar orbit in about three to four months. It is scheduled to land in four to six months on a small crater on the near side of the moon called Xiuli. Experts said the lander mission will study the origins of the moon and test technology that is critical to future lunar landing programs.

The X-ray telescope on its way to the moon is called the X-ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission (XRISM), and it was developed jointly by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), NASA and other entities.

It is a new generation of high-resolution imaging that will help scientists and astronomers better study stars, galaxies and black holes, including hot plasma, the matter that makes up most of the universe.

Japan has made several attempts to reach the moon, including the Omotenashi project to land a very small probe. In November, Japan abandoned the project after failing to restore communications with the spacecraft. Earlier this year, the Tokyo-based space company com. ispace It also halted Japan’s first private sector moon landing attempt.

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Japan’s space missions faced several other setbacks in the past year.

Last October, an Epsilon-6 rocket failed after a malfunction occurred after take-off. The missile was ordered to self-destruct less than 10 minutes after launch because it was not on the correct trajectory.

And in March, the second-stage engine of an important new rocket, the H-3, failed to ignite. It was also ordered to self-destruct within minutes.

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The missile was the first major upgrade of the country’s missile program in more than 20 years. It was designed to help the government achieve its goal of doubling the number of intelligence-gathering satellites to 10 by 2028.

Then, in July, the new Epsilon S rocket engine exploded during a second-stage engine test at the Noshiro Missile Test Center in Akita Prefecture. The explosion occurred about a minute after the start of the test, destroying part of the building at the site.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency is investigating the cause of the accident, which could affect the launch of the first Epsilon S rocket, scheduled for launch in 2024.