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The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency on Saturday launched the SOLAR-B observation satellite into orbit, where it will study the sun’s magnetic field.

An M-V solid-fuel rocket, Japan’s last, carrying the satellite lifted off from Uchinoura Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture on schedule at 6:36 a.m., according to a live Web broadcast.

The agency, known as JAXA, confirmed on its Web site that the satellite separated from the rocket and its solar panels have been deployed.

The 900-kg SOLAR-B, jointly developed by Japan, the United States and Britain, incorporates a set of optical, extreme ultraviolet and X-ray instruments designed to investigate the sun’s magnetic field, according to JAXA.

Scientists hope the satellite will help them understand the origin and consequences of active phenomena that take place in the corona by surveying the visible surface of the sun, the agency said, adding it will be able to observe the sun continuously for eight months a year.

The SOLAR-B is set to start full-scale observations around November by achieving an altitude of 630 km.

The satellite was nicknamed Hinode, meaning sunrise in Japanese, in the hope it will open up a new era of solar physics at JAXA.

It succeeds the SOLAR-A satellite, another multinational project which operated from 1991 to 2001.

The agency plans to use the satellite for at least three years.

JAXA earlier this year decided to stop producing M-V rockets in fiscal 2006 and replace them with cheaper rockets beginning in the next fiscal year.

The agency made the decision because the M-V rocket, capable of putting satellites of up to 1.8 tons into orbit at a height of 250 km, costs 7 billion yen per launch.

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry is planning to develop new rockets that have less power and keep the cost around 2.5 billion yen per satellite launch, starting in fiscal 2007, which begins next April.

It plans to use the technologies of both the M-V and H-IIA rockets in developing the new rockets.

The M-V launched Saturday is the last one.

It is a three-stage rocket developed by the Institute of Space and Aeronautical Science, which later merged into JAXA. Six M-Vs were launched between 1997 and last February. All but one, in 2000, were successful.

The rocket’s launch follows a string of successes for the agency, which has struggled in the past.

Two H-IIA rockets from launched the remote, southern island of Tanegashima in the prefecture in January and February, each carrying observation satellites.

Japan has recently been racing to catch up with China, a regional rival that has put astronauts in space twice since 2003 — only the third country to send a human into orbit on its own after Russia and the U.S.

Following Beijing’s success, Japan — which put its first satellite in orbit in 1972 — said it was reconsidering its focus on unmanned missions, announcing plans to send its first astronauts into space and set up a base on the moon by 2025.

Earlier this month, the agency also launched its third intelligence-gathering satellite amid concerns over neighboring North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.

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