Lunar Probe Launched
UCHINOURA, Japan (AP) _ Japan’s first lunar probe lifted off today, billowing clouds of smoke and carrying Japanese hopes of becoming the third nation to reach the moon.
Launch officials said the unmanned Muses-A satellite separated from the rockets several minutes into the flight as planned.
Mission chief Hiroki Matsuo said data from the satellite picked up by tracking stations in California and Australia showed it was orbiting the Earth at a maximum distance of 186,000 miles, compared with an eventual goal of 310,000 miles.
The slender M3S-2 rocket disappeared into the night sky over the Pacific Ocean from its launch pad nestled between mountains on Japan’s southern coast.
The rocket blasted off on schedule at 8:46 p.m. (6:46 a.m. EST).
If successful, the Muses-A satellite will be the first spacecraft to visit the moon since an unmanned Soviet vehicle landed on its surface in 1976. Only the United States and the Soviet Union have sent spacecraft to the moon.
Originally set for Tuesday, the liftoff was postponed with only 18 seconds to go after an electrical switching problem cut off power to a hydraulic pump used to aim the nozzle of an auxiliary booster rocket.
Matsuo said Tuesday’s delay was the first time in five launches of the solid-fuel M3S-2 that the countdown had been stopped in the final 60 seconds.
The three-stage red-and-silver M3S-2 rocket, which cannot lift much more than its 400-pound payload, carried Muses-A into an elliptical orbit that is to bring it to within about 10,000 miles of the moon in eight weeks.
Just before crossing the moon’s path, a smaller satellite will break off the Muses-A and go into lunar orbit and send data to the larger satellite on temperatures and electrical fields.
The Nissan Motor Co., Japan’s second-largest automobile maker, built the three-stage, 62-ton M3S-2 engine used in the lunar mission.
Japan’s first satellite was launched in 1970. Muses-A would be the 13th Japanese satellite in operation.
The Muses-A mission is being conducted by Japan’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, one of two government-funded space agencies.
″This time we are going to the moon. But our objective is not the moon itself,″ Matsuo said. ″Our institute is getting into interplanetary missions in the 1990s and for that we need to refine our technology.″
In recent years, Japan has achieved a respected aerospace launch record, despite its late entry into the field, low budgets - $1.06 billion last year - and a shortage of good launch sites.
Japan’s two main launch areas - in Uchinoura and in nearby Tanagashima - are only a tiny fraction of the size of space centers in other nations.
The Institute of Space, affiliated with the Education Ministry, focuses on scientific research while the Science and Technology Agency, affiliated with the National Space Development Agency, develops satellites and rockets for applied uses such as communications and weather observation.
The 12 satellites Japan currently operates include two marine observation satellites, two weather satellites, four communications satellites and one broadcasting satellite, which beams television programs directly to viewers’ homes. The remainder are scientific or engineering test satellites.
Japan’s trading partners have criticized it for not buying more foreign- made satellites and rockets at lower cost.
But the National Space Development Agency is developing a new rocket, the H-2, which will match U.S., Soviet and European rockets in payload capability and be competitive in price, director Tomifumi Godai said.