Japan becomes latest country to launch rocket to the moon: ‘We have a liftoff’ 

Japan launched a rocket Thursday with the aim of landing a small probe on the moon, hoping to become the fifth country to do so.

The launch carries two missions, the lunar probe as well as a high-tech X-ray telescope which may help scientists uncover the mysteries of how the universe was created, the Japanese space agency, JAXA, said.

The rocket launch went as planned as the telescope and lunar probe stages successfully separated as expected, JAXA said.

“We have a liftoff,” the JAXA launch narrator said as the rocket launched just after 8:30 a.m. local time Thursday.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel celebrated the moment, calling it a “significant step forward” for cooperation between the Japanese and American space agencies. NASA will assist in operating the X-ray telescope.

The lunar probe is expected to make a landing attempt early next year, the agency said, and would make Japan the fifth country to land a craft on the moon, if successful. The U.S., Soviet Union, China and, most recently, India previously landed probes on Earth’s largest satellite.

The probe is equipped with state-of-the-art landing technology that JAXA hopes will enable it to land within 100 meters of its target on the moon — unheard-of accuracy as missions generally miss their landing zones by up to 10 kilometers.

A moon mission is a large step for JAXA, which came under criticism after the launch of a new, more advanced rocket failed in March, successfully launching off the pad but failing to separate stages correctly. The launch Thursday used the country’s older rocket system.

India landed its first probe on the moon last month in the country’s second attempt. The Chandrayaan-3 craft is the only probe to ever traverse the moon’s polar regions.

India’s success follows recent failures by Russia and a private Japanese firm to land Moon probes in the last year. 

Japan has begun recruiting astronauts this year for the first time in 13 years, The Associated Press reported, potentially marking the country’s ambitions to continue its space program’s expansion.

Moves by India and Japan to advance their space programs in recent years come as the U.S. has moved to privatize much of its space work. SpaceX has taken over a majority of the duties in ferrying astronauts and supplies to and from the International Space Station.

The last American mission to the surface of the moon, Apollo 17, was in 1972.

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