Japan’s H2-A rocket launches, heading toward the moon to attempt landing

Japan’s H2-A rocket launches, heading toward the moon to attempt landing

TOKYO — Japan launched a lunar mission Thursday, overcoming multiple 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 closest neighbor.

The small unmanned Japanese spacecraft, or the H2-A rocket, launched 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 moon’s orbit in three to four months and land early next year.

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

The reputation of Japan’s space program was on the line with Thursday’s launch. A series of costly blunders over the past year raised the stakes for the launch and threatened Japan’s standing as a leading global player in space exploration — especially on the heels 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.

“I was watching anxiously, but [the telescope] was separated successfully, to my great relief,” said Kyoko Matsushita, the project scientist for the telescope, on JAXA’s live feed of the launch Thursday. “We will have to continue watching carefully, but the first step was successfully done.”

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Last month, India landed a robotic spacecraft near the moon’s south pole, a coveted area that holds water in the form of ice. Days earlier, a Russian vehicle crashed into the moon’s surface in the country’s first lunar mission in almost 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 launched Thursday “will open a new horizon for the lunar exploration in a world scale, so the success of the [lander] will bring Japan into the first-tier group.”

Japan’s performance was also important given the nation’s new national security strategy in space, developed with an eye on advancements by China and Russia. In June, Japan adopted its first space security blueprint to improve its defensive capabilities and information-gathering systems using space technology.

“Tanegashima, we have a liftoff,” U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel said in a statement after the launch, which he called a “significant step forward for JAXA-NASA cooperation and collaboration” and a “giant step into the future.”

Thursday’s lunar mission is the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM), also called a “moon sniper” because of its super precise landing technology. Japan aims to land 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 through SLIM will also be used for NASA’s Artemis project, a U.S.-led effort to place astronauts in the surface of the moon and build a sustainable presence there.

“Pinpoint landing technology is being tried by some in the world, so the competition is going to be fierce. But as far as we know, SLIM will be the first in the world,” Shinichiro Sakai, JAXA’s project manager, told reporters in June.

SLIM is expected to enter the lunar orbit in about three to four months. In four to six months, it is scheduled to land on a small crater on the near side of the moon, called Shioli. The landing mission will study the origins of the moon and test technology that is critical to future moon landing programs, experts said.

The X-ray telescope on its way to the moon is called the X-ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission (XRISM), jointly developed by 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 its Omotenashi project to land an ultrasmall probe. In November, Japan abandoned the project after failing to restore communications with the spacecraft. Earlier this year, Tokyo-based space company ispace also pulled the plug on the first Japanese private-sector attempt to land on the moon.

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

Last October, the Epsilon-6 rocket failed following a malfunction after liftoff. The rocket was ordered to self-destruct less than 10 minutes into the launch because it was not on the right path.

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.

The rocket was the first major upgrade to the country’s rocket program in over 20 years. It was designed to help the government reach its target of doubling the number of intelligence-gathering satellites to 10 by 2028.

Then in July, the new Epsilon S rocket engine exploded during a test for the second-stage engine at the Noshiro Rocket Testing Center in Akita prefecture. The explosion occurred about one minute after the test began, blowing away part of the building at the site.

JAXA is investigating the cause of the accident, which could affect the launch of the first Epsilon S rocket scheduled for 2024.