The real achievement accomplished is being able to propel an aircraft to Mach 7 (Seven times the speed of sound, approximately 5000 miles per hour) without the use of rocket technology. Whereas rockets carry their fuel and oxygen supply with them, Jet technology uses the oxygen supply from the atmosphere for combustion. Also, rocket technology is a one-time use propulsion technology. Rockets are costly and time-consuming to manufacture, require very precisely managed launch cycles and are in general a volatile and dangerous technology. Basic jet-propulsion technology has been used commercially for decades.
SCRAMjets will hopefully open the commercialization of outer space by enabling vehicles that are cheaper to manufacture, easier to operate, have a higher fuel vs. payload ratio, and have a very fast flight turnaround time (much like commercial jet aircraft today).
Related Link: Wikipedia Timeline of Aviation History.
Progress on Lunar-A and is scheduled to launch sometime in 2004. Japan hopes to differentiate it's expedition from past efforts by touting Lunar-A as an exploration mission of mars resources. Whereas U.S., Russian and European efforts have been aimed mainly at mapping the geography of the Lunar surface, Lunar-A will have detachable projectile probes ("the penetrators") that will bury themselves into the lunar surface and conduct experiments to determine the characteristics of the interior of the moon (such as thermal and seismic activity).
Following Lunar-A will be the SELENE moon explorer. Japan is heralding the SELENE program as the largest moon program undertaken since the U.S. Apollo Space Program over 30 years ago. SELENE (an acronym standing for "SELenological and ENgineering Explorer"), an unmanned expedition to the moon, will be composed of 3 components: a main orbiter and two smaller satellite. SELENE will investigate the entire moon in order to obtain information on its elemental and mineralogical composition, its geography, its surface and sub-surface structure, the remnant of its magnetic field, its gravity field, plasma and high-energy particles. The results are expected to lead to a better overall understanding of the Moon’s evolution. The goals of the mission are not entirely scientific, Japan hopes that the information obtained from the SELENE program will enable them to make better decisions regarding how humans can utilize the resources of the moon.
Japan will also have to consider that if their program encounters any delays that they will be running neck-and-neck with China's Lunar program timetable setting the stage for a very compelling and new "International Lunar Space Race".
The first priority will be to launch a multifunctional satellite that will support weather observation and air traffic control over vast areas of Asia and the Pacific and is expected to begin operation about two months after the launch. This will most likely be the ALOS satellite (the "Advanced Land Observing Satellite") which will assume functionality that Japan is currently obtaining from the U.S. GOES-9 satellite.
Comet Hunter Away
ESA's Rosetta "comet hunter" spacecraft was launched yesterday from its launchpad in French Guiana. The spacecraft, named for the famous stone that helped European scientists translate Egyptian hieroglyphics, is on a 10-year mission to drop a probe on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The comet is hypothesized to have been in orbit since the beginning of the solar system and the hope is that exploration of it will help "decipher" some of the mysteries of our solar system's development.