By Kantaro Komiya

TOKYO (Reuters) -Japan launched its lunar exploration spacecraft on Thursday aboard a homegrown H-IIA rocket, clearing a path to become the world’s fifth country to land on the moon early next year.

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said the rocket took off from Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan as planned and successfully released the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM). Unfavourable weather led to three postponements in a week last month.

Dubbed the “moon sniper”, Japan aims to land SLIM within 100 metres of its target site on the lunar surface. The $100-million mission is expected to reach the moon by February.

The launch comes two weeks after India became the fourth nation to successfully land a spacecraft on the moon with its Chandrayaan-3 mission to the unexplored lunar south pole.

Two earlier lunar landing attempts by Japan failed in the last year. JAXA lost contact with the OMOTENASHI lander and scrubbed an attempted landing in November. The Hakuto-R Mission 1 lander, made by Japanese startup ispace, crashed in April as it attempted to descend to the lunar surface.

Thursday’s H-IIA rocket also carries the X-Ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission (XRISM) satellite, a joint project of JAXA, NASA and the European Space Agency.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries manufactured the rocket and operated the launch, which marked the 47th H-IIA rocket Japan has launched since 2001, bringing the vehicle’s success rate close to 98%.

JAXA had suspended the launch of H-IIA carrying SLIM for several months while it investigated the failure of its new medium-lift H3 rocket during its debut in March.

Japan’s space missions have faced other recent setbacks, with the launch failure of the Epsilon small rocket in October 2022, followed by an engine explosion during a test in July.

The country plans to send astronauts to the moon in the late 2020s.

(Reporting by Kantaro Komiya; Editing by Tom Hogue and Gerry Doyle)

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