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Land of the rising space programme

The M-5 rocket that blasted off from Japan's Uchinoura Space Centre last week did more than just launch the infrared space telescope, Akari (light) into Earth's orbit. The satellite telescope, a collaborative effort with European scientists, will make an unprecedented study of the sky in infrared light.

india Updated: Feb 28, 2006 01:12 IST
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The M-5 rocket that blasted off from Japan's Uchinoura Space Centre last week did more than just launch the infrared space telescope, Akari (light) into Earth's orbit. The satellite telescope, a collaborative effort with European scientists, will make an unprecedented study of the sky in infrared light. Infrared satellites can detect cool objects, including planetary systems, interstellar dust and gas, or distant galaxies, all of which are difficult to study in the visible part of the light spectrum. Since the 'creation' energy left over from the birth of stars and galaxies peaks in the infrared range, Akari will help astronomers to better understand the formation and evolution of the universe.

That apart, the launch of the indigenously designed M-5 rocket itself will give Japan's space programme a boost and put the country back in the race with China to become Asia's leading space power. Japan probably has learned some valuable lessons in space flight from its recent probe that narrowly missed retrieving samples from an asteroid. For a while it seemed that the mid-air explosion of its workhorse launcher, H-2, in 2003 (just a month after China launched its first astronaut into orbit) had put Japan's space plans on hold. But the M-5's success points to a resurgent space programme: one that gives the lie to the general feeling that international rivalries in space belong to the past. Space programmes obviously still carry powerful implications for national prestige and military strength of countries.

Besides accessing the lucrative space launch market, Japan's development of advanced rockets opens the way for Tokyo to have an exclusive satellite reconnaissance programme for monitoring an unfriendly neighbourhood. This suggests that Japan, traditionally a junior partner in US space activities, has adopted an increasingly independent posture to give its military greater autonomy from the US.

First Published: Feb 28, 2006 01:04 IST