Japan's massive Kaguya lunar orbiter stands poised to launch spaceward this week on a mission that, researchers hope, will unlock the secrets of the moon. Equipped with a veritable arsenal of science instruments and two baby satellites, the three-ton moon probe is set to liftoff from Japan early Friday (Local Time) on a one-year mission to Earth's nearest neighbor.
"The Japanese people are very interested in this mission," said Shinichi Sobue, Kaguya's science coordinator and public outreach for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). "Kaguya, or SELENE, is our first mission for really observing the moon."
HAVING flooded the globe with cheap cars, flat-screen TVs and electronic gadgetry, Japan has apparently tired of exporting its technology to planet Earth.
Yesterday, at 10.31am, it became the first Asian nation to send its wares to the moon in a lunar probe, blasting a three-tonne orbiter called Kaguya into space, and opening the way for a new space race with China and India.
After four years of setbacks, the Japanese H-2A rocket carrying Kaguya finally lifted off into blue skies over the Pacific island of Tanegashima. The 21-day journey marks the start of a year-long mission that Japan hopes will strike a first blow against China's rapidly expanding space ambitions.
Japanese scientists say the 55 billion yen ($A568 million) project is the biggest and most technically challenging mission to the moon since the US Apollo program ended in 1972.
But Japan has "no military factors in mind" as it peers over its shoulder at its rival, says Shinichi Sobue, senior engineer at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). "We want to give children dreams."
China is expected to send its Chang'e-1 satellite to the moon by the end of the year and aims to land an unmanned vehicle by 2010. India, which will launch its Chandrayaan-1 satellite next year, hopes to put a man on the moon by 2020.
America's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and LCROSS satellites are also scheduled to leave for the moon next year, while Russia plans to launch its Luna-Glob satellite in 2012.
Scientists from the agency hope that Kaguya, named after a moon-dwelling princess in an old Japanese folktale, can shed light on several mysteries of the moon that remain unexplored.
The lunar explorer separated from its 53-metre-tall rocket 45 minutes after blasting away from Earth, while flying through skies over Chile, and will orbit the Earth twice before making a 380,000-kilometre voyage to its only natural satellite.
As it orbits the moon from 100 kilometres, Kaguya's orbiter, two 50-kilogram satellites, and 14 observation instruments will survey the sphere's distribution of elements and minerals, map uncharted polar areas, measure gravity fields and study the surface for clues about its evolution.
A high-definition television camera will send back images of the Earth as it rises from the moon's horizon.
Australian scientists from the University of Tasmania will use a 26-metre Mount Pleasant radio telescope, south-east of Hobart, to aid one of Kaguya's experiments. Along with other radio telescopes, it will track the lunar probe's position and use the information to make accurate measurements of the lunar gravitational field.
Dr Simon Ellingsen, from the university's school of mathematics and physics, said new information about the gravitational field could be used to test theories about how the planets in our solar system formed.
The Kaguya voyage will be Japan's first trip to the moon since 1990, when it launched the failed Hagoromo orbiter. The following year it sent the Hiten spacecraft, but it was only able to measure dust particles in the atmosphere.
Although China and India are expected to overtake Japan in the battle for space supremacy, the Kayuga project is the most ambitious of the present round of missions.