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Japan's lunar orbiter to get launched on Aug. 16

Japan’s officials announced that first Japanese lunar orbiter was scheduled for launch on Aug. 16.

Japan's space agency, JAXA, announced the much-delayed Selenological and Engineering Explorer - or SELENE - probe will be launched aboard an H-2A rocket, the mainstay of Japan's space program, from a space center on the remote southern Japan island of Tanegashima.

The 32-billion yen (US$269 million; EUR200 million) SELENE is four years behind schedule. Japan launched a moon probe in 1990, but that was a flyby mission, unlike SELENE which is intended to orbit the moon.

It canceled another moon shot, LUNAR-A, that was to have been launched in 2004 but has been repeatedly postponed due to mechanical and fiscal problems.

JAXA says the SELENE project is the largest lunar mission since the U.S. Apollo program.

It involves placing a main satellite in orbit at an altitude of about 100 kilometers (60 miles) and deploying two smaller satellites in polar orbits. Researchers will use data gathered by the probes to study the moon's origin and evolution.

The main orbiter will remain in position for about a year.

The mission is a stepping stone in Japan's plan to more aggressively pursue space objectives - including an unmanned lunar landing and, possibly, other manned space missions. To raise public awareness, JAXA conducted a "Wish Upon the Moon" campaign that allows people to send brief messages up with the orbiter.

Messages and names selected by JAXA will be engraved on sheets of metal attached to the probe.

Japan leaped ahead of the rest of Asia by launching the region's first satellite in 1972. Now it is struggling to keep up in the most heated space race since the Cold War competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

China launched its first manned space flight in 2003. A second mission in 2005 put two astronauts into orbit for a week, and a third manned launch is planned for next year. This year, China also plans to launch a probe that will orbit the moon.

Japan has no manned space program of its own, although Japanese have flown aboard NASA's Space Shuttle and a Japanese journalist took a ride on a Russian space craft.

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