Japan launches satellite to peer at oldest stars at edge of universe

February 21, 1993|By New York Times News Service

TOKYO -- Japan launched a satellite yesterday that is expected to peer with unprecedented acuity into the farthest reaches of the universe, giving scientists a new vision of stars formed in the first few hundred million years after the explosion, known as the big bang, that is considered by many to have created the universe.

The launching seems likely to be the latest success for Japan's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, a little-known agency that operates on a shoestring but, to the envy of some U.S. astronomers, has managed to launch 15 scientific satellites in two decades.

Developed in cooperation with the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., the satellite contains equipment for detecting X-rays from celestial bodies. One task will be to look for invisible matter to help answer the question of whether the universe has )) enough mass in it to keep it from expanding indefinitely.

"We have an opportunity to look back to where we are seeing the first generation of stars," said George R. Ricker, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who designed a key X-ray-sensing device on the satellite. The X-rays will be focused onto the MIT imaging sensors.

After an eight-day delay to fix a leaky valve, the satellite, known until yesterday as Astro-D, was launched at 11 a.m. from Kagoshima Space Center on Kyushu. After reaching orbit, the satellite was given a more evocative name, Asuka, meaning Flying Bird.

Japan has two space agencies. The main one, the National Space Development Agency of Japan, develops big rockets and launches commercial satellites for communications and meteorology.

The smaller one, known as ISAS, is run by the Education Ministry and is descended from the space research group at the University of Tokyo that launched Japan's first rocket in 1955, a "pencil" 9 inches long that reached an altitude of only 2,000 feet.

When the Space Development Agency was established in 1969, ISAS was restricted to scientific missions and to using relatively small rockets so that it would not compete with the larger agency.

The ISAS budget, $200 million a year, is only one-tenth of Japan's overall space budget and a tiny percentage of the amount the United States spends on military and civilian space programs. But the restrictions on ISAS to some extent turned into a blessing because they gave scientific work top priority.

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