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Friday, September 14, 2007

TO THE MOON, PRINCESS! TO THE MOON!





TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan launched its first lunar probe on Friday, nicknamed Kaguya after a fairy-tale princess, in the latest move in a new race with China, India and the United States to explore the moon.

The rocket carrying the three-metric ton orbiter took off into blue skies, leaving a huge trail of vapor over the tiny island of Tanegashima, about 1,000 km (620 miles) south of Tokyo, at 10:31 a.m. (9:31 p.m. EDT) as it headed out over the Pacific Ocean.

The long-delayed lunar explorer separated from the rocket in skies near Chile about 45 minutes after lift off. It is to orbit the Earth twice and then travel 380,000 km (237,500 miles) to the moon.

"Kaguya separated from the rocket smoothly," the space agency's launch commentator said in a live broadcast of the launch on the Japanese space agency's Web site (www.jaxa.jp).

"Now the satellites are flying on their own. This is the first step and I am really impressed," said Tatsuaki Okada, a scientist involved in the project.

Japanese scientists say the 55 billion yen ($479 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.

"If we succeed in this program, we will be able to prove that Japan has the technology," Okada said.

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.

The rocket itself was built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has said it hopes to send astronauts to the moon by 2025, although Japan has not yet attempted manned space flight.

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.

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