Page last updated at 14:21 GMT, Tuesday, 22 April 2008 15:21 UK

Japan's cherry to fly into space

Japanese pink cherry blossom in bloom
The cherry blossom in spring is one of Japan's enduring images

One of Japan's most enduring national symbols, the cherry flower, is set to travel into space.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) will send seeds to its soon-to-orbit science lab at the International Space Station (ISS).

The experiment will observe how the seeds are affected by microgravity.

Schoolchildren will pick about 200 fallen seeds, including from three "ancient trees", this summer for the launch later this year.

Japan's Kibo lab will itself be despatched to the ISS next month, in the payload bay of the US space shuttle Discovery.

Natural treasures

The space project will send the seeds from 10 cherry trees, including three designated by the government as natural treasures and praised for producing Japan's most beautiful blossoms.

"Scientific observation is one reason. But we also want the seeds to travel in space on our behalf as few ordinary people can go now," said Manned Space Systems spokeswoman Yuko Otake.

One of the three ancient trees, named Takizakura or "cascade cherry blossoms", draws 300,000 viewers for the three weeks it is in bloom in the small northern town of Miharu.

Primary school pupils in Miharu will pick the seeds this summer for lift off in October. The town will share the returned seeds with research institutions after their six-month stay in space.

"We are very proud that our tree was selected among many cherry blossoms that represent Japan," said town official Sadafumi Hirata.

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