Japan has placed a satellite in orbit around the moon for the first time, officials said Friday, in a major space breakthrough for the Asian nation.
The $279 million Selenological and Engineering Explorer - or SELENE - is the largest lunar mission since the U.S. Apollo program in terms of overall scope and ambition.
The mission involves placing the main satellite in orbit at an altitude of about 60 miles and deploying two smaller satellites in polar orbits, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA.
Researchers will use data gathered by the probes to study the moon's origin and evolution. The main orbiter will stay in position for about a year.
Japan launched a moon probe in 1990, but that was a flyby mission. It canceled another moon shot, LUNAR-A, that was to have been launched in 2004 but had been repeatedly postponed because of mechanical and fiscal problems.
The long-delayed SELENE was launched on Sept. 14 aboard one of the space program's mainstay H-2A rockets from Tanegashima, the remote island where the agency's space center is located.
The mission - four years behind JAXA's original schedule - comes as China is planning to launch its own lunar probe. That country's minister of defense and technology told China Central Television in July all was ready for a launch "by the end of the year."
China's Chang'e 1 orbiter will use stereo cameras and X-ray spectrometers to map three-dimensional images of the lunar surface and study its dust.
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