Japan put its first satellite into orbit around the moon Friday, placing the country a step ahead of China and India in an increasingly heated space race in Asia.

The probe was set into lunar orbit after completing a complicated navigational maneuver late Thursday, space agency officials said. The probe will gradually move into orbit closer to the surface to the moon before conducting a yearlong observational mission.

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

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Though four years off schedule, the mission comes at a crucial time for Japan.

China is expected to launch its own moon probe by the end of the year, and India is to follow with an unmanned lunar mission in 2008.

Japanese officials claim the $279 million Selenological and Engineering Explorer — or SELENE — is the largest lunar mission since the U.S. Apollo program in terms of overall scope and ambition, outpacing the former Soviet Union's Luna program and NASA's Clementine and Lunar Prospector projects.

The mission involves placing the main satellite — called "Kaguya," after a legendary moon princess — in a circular orbit at an altitude of about 60 miles and deploying two smaller satellites in elliptical orbits, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA.

Researchers will use data gathered by the probes to study the moon's origin and evolution. 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 via a video link from the mission command center south of the capital. "It was important to the completion of the mission, and it was successful."

Japan launched its first satellite in 1970 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 a 2004 moon shot, LUNAR-A after repeated mechanical and fiscal problems.

SELINE 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.

To garner public interest, the probe carries sheets engraved with messages from 412,627 people around the world in its "Wish upon the Moon" campaign.

China's minister of defense and technology told China Central Television in July that everything was ready for a launch "by the end of the year" of the Chang'e 1 orbiter, which will use stereo cameras and X-ray spectrometers to map three-dimensional images of the lunar surface and study its dust.

China 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, including the United States and Russia.

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 cloud of space debris.

India plans a manned space mission by 2015, using indigenous systems and technology. That will be preceded by an unmanned moon mission, Chandrayaan-1, in April 2008.