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Japan and the European Space Agency are planning a joint mission that would be the first to land a probe on Mercury, a government official said Wednesday.

The mission entails three probes — two that would orbit and one that would land — to map the topography and study the origins of the closest planet to the sun.

Russian Soyuz rockets would launch the probes starting in 2010; the probes would reach Mercury about four years later and spend a year charting the planet.

“This would be the first landing,” said Masahiko Sawabe of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. “If successful, we will collect a lot of new scientific knowledge.”

To escape the searing heat of Mercury’s rocky surface, where temperatures hit 467 C during the day, the probe would land at night on the dark side of the planet. Nighttime temperatures plunge to 183 C. Because of Mercury’s slow rotation around its axis, one of its days equals up to 176 earth days.

Japan would chip in 13.5 billion yen and Europe would contribute 60 billion yen, Sawabe said. Japan would build one of the orbiting satellites, while the Europeans would construct the lander and the other orbiter.

The goal of the mission is to study the planet’s surface and environment and try to unlock the mysteries of how the planet evolved.

A ministry subcommittee recommended that the ministry push ahead with further mission development. The proposal is to be reviewed for approval at a panel hearing next Monday, Sawabe said.

Mercury has been visited by only one probe — the U.S.-launched Mariner 10, which conducted three flybys from 1974 to 1975. NASA is planning to launch another orbiting probe, dubbed Messenger, sometime in 2004. It would reach its destination in 2007.

Japan embarked on its first interplanetary exploration with the 1998 launching of the Nozomi, or Hope, probe to Mars. It has been plagued by technical problems and made its final flyby of the Earth just last week. Nozomi should reach the red planet by year’s end.

Outsourcing Kibo

Kyodo News An advisory panel urged the government Wednesday to farm out some of the management of a test module bound for the International Space Station in a bid to cut costs.

The Kibo (Hope) experimental module is to be Japan’s first manned space facility. The government plans to begin its operations in fiscal 2006 and it will cost about 60 billion yen a year to run.

The outsourcing recommendation came in a report compiled by a subcommittee of the Space Activities Commission. It calls for scaling back the government burden to 40 billion yen and partly transferring its management to the private sector within two to three years after it begins operating.

The science and technology ministry will now map out ways to share the cost with the private sector, ministry officials said.

The report was compiled in response to a call last year by the Council for Science and Technology under the Cabinet Office to review the expensive project. Kibo development costs are already at 320 billion yen.

The ministry will ask pharmaceuticals and electric machinery makers to form a consortium to take part in Kibo’s management because experiments conducted in it are to center on development of protein crystal for medical use and new materials.

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