The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency is set to move forward with a plan to go to the moon, landing an unmanned probe on the lunar surface as early as 2018. If JAXA is successful, this would make Japan the fourth country in the world to land on the moon.

Aside from the distinction of being one of the few countries to have reached the moon, Japan's lunar trip will also mark further preparations for exploring Mars. According to sources, JAXA will be developing a high-precision soft-landing technology to aid the mission. It will be called SLIM, standing for Smart Lander for Investigating Moon, and will use Epsilon solid-fuel rockets.

JAXA's plan for a moon landing was presented to an expert panel made up of officials in the country's Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry. If the space policy committee of the Japanese government approves the plan, this will prompt the science ministry to request funding for the project, dealing with budgetary requests for the coming fiscal year.

Moon landing attempts in the past were unsuccessful because they missed their landing targets by some miles. With the use of SLIM, though, JAXA is hoping it will be able to pull off a soft landing within the intended landing site's 328-feet radius.

In 2007, JAXA launched the lunar orbiter, Kaguya. During its time in space, the orbiter took photos of craters and other distinct features of the moon. The next landing mission will be using data gathered by Kaguya to better determine locations and increase landing accuracy.

The lunar orbiter also discovered a shaft in the moon's surface about 196 feet in diameter and 262 feet deep. The shaft is being considered as a location for a moon base in the future and a potential landing site for the 2018 mission.

Japan showed it has what it takes to develop advanced landing technology through the Hayabusa probe, which has been landed on the Itokawa asteroid. However, gravity levels on an asteroid are different from levels on the moon, meaning different technology will have to be developed to allow JAXA to land on the moon.

Aside from landing on the lunar surface with the SLIM probe, Japan also has plans of sending a rover to the moon by the end of 2016. A private sector project, it will require landing craft and rockets built by an American company.

The other nations to have successfully landed unmanned probes on the moon are China, the former Soviet Union and the United States.

Photo: David DeHetre | Flickr

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