Page last updated at 16:29 GMT, Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Japan marvels at its Moon movies

By Paul Rincon
Science reporter, BBC News, Houston

Moon and Earth pictured from Selene
The movies give a sense of what the Apollo astronauts must have felt

Stunning high-definition movies of the Moon's surface have been sent back by a Japanese space probe.

Selene, or Kaguya, arrived at the Moon late last year and carries a large HDTV camera to shoot footage as it flies 100km above the lunar surface.

The video gives an idea of the vistas seen decades ago by the Apollo astronauts as they approached the Moon.

The very latest footage was unveiled at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas.

We want to step up our technology and move on to Mars
Prof Manabu Kato, Selene mission

It includes amazing pictures of "Earth rise" over the lunar horizon and of the "terminator", the boundary between the Moon's day side and night side.

"It is quite a spectacular view," said Dr Rie Honda, from Japan's Kochi University, a collaborator on the Selene mission.

Selene consists of one main satellite along with two smaller sub-satellites, named Ouna and Okina.

Ambitious mission

It is designed to carry out a global survey of the Moon, mapping its 3D topography, its gravity and its magnetic field.

Selene (Jaxa)
Selene is a technological stepping stone to Mars

It is also designed to be a technology demonstrator for the Japanese Space Agency (Jaxa), testing orbital insertion and correction manoeuvres and communications.

Professor Manabu Kato, science manager for the mission, told BBC News the arrival of Selene at the Moon marked a significant step for Japanese space science.

"We want to step up our technology and move on to Mars," the Jaxa scientist explained.

"We have a near future plan that we will reach Mars by 2020-2025."

Selene carries 14 science instruments in addition to the HDTV camera. They include spectrometers and a multi-band imager to characterise the chemical and mineral composition of the lunar surface.

Earth from Selene (Jaxa)
The stunning pictures are primarily for educational purposes

The probe also carries a radar sounder to survey shallow subsurface features.

The reasons for the heavy HDTV camera's inclusion on the mission was purely one of "outreach", or education, scientists said.

"The HDTV camera has been developed by Jaxa and Japanese broadcaster NHK.

"We have been thinking that HDTV itself is not accurate enough for scientific purposes. But for giving a hint for other scientists of [wide areas], it will be," said Dr Honda.

Ice question

The probe has already flown over an impact depression known as Shackleton crater, where some scientists believe stores of water-ice may be held - of possible use to future lunar colonists.

HD camera (Jaxa)
The HD camera in preparation before its launch to the Moon

Mission scientists are still analysing the data from their over-flight of Shackleton, but have found no firm evidence of ice as yet.

"Our principal investigator is looking at this again and again, because there are many people interested in this [question]," said Dr Kato.

The spacecraft has already flown over Apollo landing sites, leaving some to wonder whether the probe might be able to image hardware left by the US Apollo and Russian Lunokhod missions.

Moon's surface (Jaxa)
Selene is mapping the lunar surface

Professor Kato said the craft's terrain camera could resolve geographical features up to 10m, so it was "not easy to determine traces of Apollo or Russian vehicles".

Selene was launched on 14 September 2007 and entered an observation orbit 100km above the lunar surface on 18 October.

It finished the final check-out of its mission instruments on 20 December.

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