After three postponements since the end of August due to bad weather, the H-IIA rocket of the Japanese space agency Jaxa took off Thursday as planned at 08:42 Japanese time (Wednesday 23:42 GMT) from the launch base of the Jaxa in Tanegashima (southwest Japan), on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.

The rocket carried a small lunar module called SLIM (Smart Lander for Investigating the Moon) and nicknamed "Moon Sniper", supposed to land in four to six months on the Moon with high precision, at a maximum of 100 meters from its target against several kilometers usually.

About 45 minutes after liftoff, SLIM's separation from the rest of the rocket went smoothly, triggering an explosion of joy and applause in Jaxa's control center, according to live footage posted on YouTube.

For mobile exploration robots, "navigating steep slopes and rough terrain is still a high level of difficulty. That's why it's important to successfully land (spacecraft) with high precision to allow effective exploration in the future," Jaxa said on its website.

In addition, the areas suitable for the exploration of the polar regions of the Moon "are limited to a very small area," notes Jaxa.

In the event of a successful moon landing, SLIM will also have to use a multispectral camera to carry out analyses of the composition of rocks thought to come from the lunar mantle, the internal structure of the Moon still poorly understood.

Recent failures of Jaxa

XRISM, an astronomical satellite jointly developed by Jaxa, NASA and the European Space Agency for an X-ray imaging and spectroscopy mission, was also carried aboard the H-IIA rocket. Its separation from the launcher and its launch into orbit shortly after liftoff also worked.

Sign of the enthusiasm aroused by this double Japanese mission, the takeoff of the rocket was followed Thursday live by more than 35,000 people on YouTube.

The global race to explore the Moon is intensifying: India succeeded in August in landing a craft there for the first time, with a mobile robot delivering images and scientific data of the surface of the lunar south pole.

Before India, only the United States, the Soviet Union and China had ever achieved controlled moon landings.

Russia, for its part, has just failed in a new attempt, its Luna-25 probe having crashed last month on the lunar soil.

Japan had already tried in November to land a mini-probe on the Moon, aboard the American mission Artemis 1.

But communication with this probe was lost shortly after its ejection into space, due to a failure of its batteries.

And in April of this year, a young private Japanese company, ispace, failed to land its lunar module that probably crashed into the surface of Earth's natural satellite.

The Jaxa has experienced several setbacks with other of its launchers since last year.

Last October, its small-scale Epsilon-6 rocket failed shortly after liftoff, and Jaxa's large, next-generation H3 rocket then experienced back-to-back failures in early 2023.

This ambitious model has still not succeeded in a first mission and the date of a new attempt is not yet known.

© 2023 AFP