After Multiple Setbacks, a Japanese Rocket Bound for the Moon Finally Takes Off

The launch offers relief to a battered national space program following a string of weather delays, major setbacks, and high-profile failures.

After Multiple Setbacks, a Japanese Rocket Bound for the Moon Finally Takes Off
An H2-A rocket carrying a small lunar surface probe and other objects lifts off from the Tanegashima Space Centre on Tanegashima island, Kagoshima prefecture on Sept. 7, 2023.

A Japanese rocket bound for the moon took off early Thursday, offering relief to a battered national space program following a string of weather delays, major setbacks and high-profile failures.

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The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s H2-A rocket lifted off around 8:42 a.m. local time from Tanegashima Space Center in southwestern Japan. It was originally scheduled to launch in August but was delayed three times on concerns over bad weather.

The heavy payload rocket was launched carrying an advanced imaging satellite and a lightweight lander that was scheduled to reach the moon as early as January.

Around 9:30 a.m., the lander separated from the rocket and successfully began its journey to the lunar surface. 

Developed and built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., the H2-A is the agency’s most reliable rocket with just one failure out of 42 launches since 2001.

On Thursday it was carrying the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon, or SLIM, among other things. Standing less than 3 meters (9.8 feet) tall, the lander could pave the way for other probes with high navigational accuracy.

The rocket is also carrying the X-Ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission, or XRISM, a satellite that will help scientists observe plasma in stars and galaxies.

The H2-A’s successor, the H3, was supposed to inherit the mantle earlier this year. Instead it failed twice to launch — the first time refusing to budge from its launch pad and the second time in more dramatic fashion, when a system malfunction forced operators to transmit a self-destruct code, rendering it inert before it fell carrying a satellite into the Philippine Sea.

The space race is heating up after India on Aug. 24 became the first country to land a spacecraft near the moon’s south pole. A Russian attempt at a lunar touch down in the same area a few days before ended in failure following an engine malfunction.

The U.S. plans to send the first humans to explore the area near the south pole later this decade, in a mission called Artemis III. China is also seeking to build a research station near the region and place astronauts on the moon by 2030.