An H2A rocket carrying the Japanese space agency's lunar lander was launched Thursday at Tanegashima Space Center in southwestern Japan, making it the first liftoff in Japan of a major domestic rocket since March amid an intensifying global space race.
With the SLIM small-scale explorer designed to test technology for pinpoint landings on the lunar surface, Japan aims to become the fifth country after the former Soviet Union, the United States, China and India to land a craft on the Moon.
According to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the H2A, which took off at 8:42 a.m., "flew as planned," with SLIM having separated from the rocket successfully about 47 minutes later.
The XRISM X-ray astronomical satellite, which will be used to observe plasma in stars and galaxies, was also on board and separated successfully.
The development came after a failed inaugural launch in March of Japan's next-generation H3 rocket, under development by JAXA and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. It was the H2A rocket's 41st successful launch in a row since 2005.
The H2A, the 47th of its kind and launched by Mitsubishi Heavy, was initially scheduled to blast off around May, but the date was pushed back to August or later due to it sharing parts with the H3 that was forced to self-destruct shortly after takeoff. Inclement weather also led to some delays in late August.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the development of a mainstay launch vehicle is "essential" for Japan's independent space activities at a time when the space race is intensifying.
"We hope to carry forward this momentum toward a successful relaunch of the H3 and development of space exploration," Kishida said on X, formerly called Twitter.
India became the fourth country to reach the lunar surface of the Moon on Aug. 23 when its Chandrayaan-3 touched down on its south pole, with the success coming just days after a Russian lander crashed on the lunar surface.
JAXA President Hiroshi Yamakawa told a press conference that he was relieved that XRISM and SLIM "took their first steps toward realizing their respective missions," and vowed to work hard to "restore confidence in Japan's rocket technology" following the H3 setback.
The SLIM lunar lander is expected to enter the Moon's orbit in around three to four months with plans for it to reach the lunar surface between around January and February next year.
It is planned that the spacecraft will land within 100 meters of a specific location near the Shioli crater close to the lunar equator using camera-captured images. The accuracy of conventional landers ranges between several to dozens of kilometers.
The lunar data gathered by Japan will be used in the U.S.-led Artemis project, aimed at returning humans to the Moon by 2025 and advancing lunar exploration. The ultimate goal is for humans to explore Mars.
The XRISM project is led by JAXA in collaboration with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the European Space Agency.
Around 800 people gathered at a park about 6 kilometers away from the space center on Tanegashima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture, clapping and cheering as they watched the rocket lift off.
A couple from Gunma Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, said it was one of the moments they had been looking forward to in their post-retirement years.
Haruki Nagao, 10, a local fifth grader, said, "The noise that boomed through me was amazing."