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Japan launches rocket carrying lunar lander and X-ray telescope to explore origins of universe


TOKYO — Japan on Thursday launched a rocket carrying an X-ray telescope that will explore the origins of the universe as well as a small lunar lander.

The launch of the HII-A rocket from Tanegashima Space Center in southwestern Japan was broadcast on live video by Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency, known as JAXA.

“We have liftoff,” the JAXA narrator said as the rocket lifted off in a burst of smoke and then hovered over the Pacific.

Thirteen minutes after launch, the rocket orbited Earth with a satellite called the X-Ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission, or XRISM, which will measure the speed and composition of what lies between galaxies.

An H2-A rocket carrying a small lunar surface probe and other objects lifts off from the Tanegashima Space Center on Tanegashima Island, Kagoshima Prefecture, on September 7, 2023.JIJI Press/AFP – Getty Images

This information helps to study how celestial objects formed and hopefully can help solve the mystery of how the universe was created, says JAXA.

In cooperation with NASA, JAXA will study the intensity of light at different wavelengths, the temperature of objects in space, as well as their shapes and brightness.

David Alexander, director of Rice University’s Rice Space Institute, believes the mission is important because it will provide insight into the properties of hot plasma, or superheated matter that makes up much of the universe.

Plasmas can be used in a variety of ways, including healing wounds, making computer chips, and cleaning up the environment.

“Understanding the distribution of this hot plasma in space and time, as well as its dynamic movement, will allow a better understanding of various phenomena such as black holes, the evolution of chemical elements in the universe and the formation of galactic clusters,” Alexander said.

Also aboard Japan’s latest rocket is the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon, or SLIM, a lightweight lunar lander. The Smart Lander won’t orbit the lunar for three or four months after launch and will most likely attempt a landing early next year, according to the space agency.

The lander successfully separated from the rocket about 45 minutes after launch and followed its proper trajectory to finally land on the moon. JAXA workers cheered and bowed from their vantage point.

JAXA is developing “accurate landing technology” to prepare for future lunar probes and landings on other planets. While landings now tend to be off by about 6 miles or more, the Smart Lander is designed to be more accurate, about 330 feet from the intended target, JAXA official Shinichiro Sakai told reporters before the start.

This allows box-shaped gadgets to find a safer place to land.

The move comes at a time when the world is once again turning to the challenge of going to the Moon. Only four countries have successfully landed on the Moon: the United States, Russia, China and India.

Last month, India landed a spacecraft near the south pole of the Moon. It came just days after Russia failed in its bid to return to the moon for the first time in nearly half a century. A private Japanese company, called ispace, crashed a lander while attempting to land in April.

The Japanese space program has been marred by recent failures. In February, the launch of the H3 rocket was aborted due to a problem. Liftoff was successful a month later, but the rocket had to be destroyed after its second stage failed to ignite properly.

Japan has started recruiting astronaut candidates for the first time in 13 years, making clear its ambition to send a Japanese to the moon.

Going to the Moon has fascinated mankind for decades. As part of the American Apollo program, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon in 1969.

NASA’s last human mission to the moon was in 1972, and the focus on sending humans to the moon seemed to be waning, with missions being relegated to robots.