So far, so good.

Kaguya's lunar orbit

The Kaguya spacecraft will release two smaller payloads and gradually settle into a polar orbit only 60 miles (100 km) high. Click on image for an expanded view.


Early today Japanese space officials confirmed that the Kaguya spacecraft, launched three weeks ago, has slipped into lunar orbit as planned. Yesterday an onboard rocket fired at 6:20 a.m. (Japan Standard Time), allowing the craft to settle into a looping 16.7-hour polar orbit that ranges in altitude from 63 miles (101 km) to 7,296 miles (11,741 km).

A brief press release posted by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency notes that "the satellite is confirmed to be in good health."

Kaguya, named for a mythical lunar princess, represents Japan's first dedicated lunar mission since 1990. Over the next few days it'll release two smaller satellites: one will be tracked carefully to map the Moon's gravity, and the other will serve as a radio relay.

Although you'll likely see lots of pretty scenes from Kaguya's high-def TV camera in the coming weeks, the mission's scientists are more interested in results from the craft's 13 experiments. One of them is a terrain camera with 30-foot (10-meter) resolution. Spectrometers and a radar sounder should provide additional insight about how much water might lie in permanent shadow at the lunar poles.

Perhaps you've already realized that Kaguya reached the Moon on the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1. I don't know if JAXA's mission planners had that auspicious date in mind, but it sure brings home how far we've come in space exploration. Kaguya's predecessor in lunar orbit was SMART 1, launched in 2003 by the European Space Agency, and the next ones will come from China, India, and the US.


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