Source AP ©

Japan to launch its first probe around the moon in August

Space Agency of Japan said Thursday that its first lunar orbiter will be sent to space in August.

The 32-billion yen (US$269 million; EUR200 million) Selene, or selenological and engineering explorer, will be carried into space by a Japanese-built H-2A rocket, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency spokesman Tatsuo Oshima.

During its one-year mission, the probe is designed to release two small satellites to measure the moon's magnetic and gravitational fields, Ohima said.

It will be the country's first lunar orbiter, he said.

Japan in 1990 sent a satellite into space to collect scientific data about the moon, Ohima said.

Selene will be launched in August from the country's space center on the remote southern island of Tanegashima, Oshima quoted JAXA President Keiji Tachikawa as telling reporters. No exact launch date has yet been determined.

The launch will be conducted by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., which took over the launch business from the government space agency on April 1, Oshima said.

Japan became the fourth country to put a satellite in orbit, in 1972, but its space program has suffered setbacks in recent years. Its effort to develop a commercial satellite launch industry was dealt a blow in 2003 when a rocket carrying two spy satellites malfunctioned and had to be destroyed in mid-flight.

Last month, a Japanese government official said one of its four spy satellite was unresponsive due to apparent electrical problems. The other three satellites were functioning normally, the officials have said.

Japan, trailing China's lead, is also considering a manned space flight program. It has yet to send humans into space on its own, though Japanese astronauts have joined U.S. Space Shuttle missions.