Anonymous, Associated Press
Artist's rendering released by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency depicts the SELENE satellite in orbit around the moon.

TOKYO — Japan has placed a satellite in orbit around the moon for the first time, officials said Friday, in a major space breakthrough for the Asian nation.

The mission involves positioning the main satellite at an altitude of about 60 miles and deploying two smaller satellites in polar orbits, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA.

Researchers will use data gathered by the $279 million Selenological and Engineering Explorer — or SELENE — project to study the moon's origin and evolution. The main orbiter will stay in position for about a year.

Japanese officials say the effort is the largest lunar mission since the U.S. Apollo program in terms of overall scope and ambition.

"We believe this is a big step," said project manager Yoshisada Takizawa. "Everything is going well, and we are confident."

Project engineers put the probe through a maneuver late Thursday and confirmed early today it had achieved orbit, Takizawa said. It will gradually move into a lower orbit as it continues its mission to map and analyze the moon's surface.

Takizawa said it will begin its observation phase in mid- to late-December.

"The timing was very delicate," he said at a news conference in JAXA's Tokyo headquarters. "It was important to the completion of the mission, and it was successful."

The project marks a key advance for Japan — which launched its first satellite in 1972 but is now struggling to keep up with rival China.

Japan launched a moon probe in 1990, but that was a flyby mission. It canceled another moon shot that was to have been launched in 2004 but had been repeatedly postponed because of mechanical and fiscal problems.

The long-delayed SELENE was launched on Sept. 14 aboard one of the space program's mainstay H-2A rockets from Tanegashima, the remote island where the agency's space center is located.

The mission — four years behind JAXA's original schedule — comes as China is planning to launch its own lunar probe.

China continues to lead Japan in Asia's space race. It sent shock waves through the region in 2003 when it became the first Asian country to put its own astronauts into space. More ominously, China also blasted an old satellite into oblivion with a land-based anti-satellite missile, the first such test ever conducted by any nation.

That test was widely criticized for its military implications. A similar rocket could be used to shoot military satellites out of space, and create a dangerous haze of space debris.