An artist's impression of JAXA's SLIM (Smart Lander for Investigating Moon) rover landing on the moon's surface.

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Japan aims to put an unmanned rover on the surface of the moon by 2018

The mission is expected to to be used to perfect technologies which could be utilized for future manned space missions

CNN  — 

Japan’s space agency announced this week that the country would put an unmanned rover on the surface of the moon by 2018, joining an elite club of nations who have explored Earth’s satellite.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), divulged the plan to an expert panel, including members of the cabinet and the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry on Monday.

“This is an initial step and a lot of procedures are still ahead before the plan is formally approved,” a JAXA spokesperson told reporters.

If it is approved, the agency will reportedly use its Epsilon solid-fuel rocket technology to carry and deploy a SLIM probe – the acronym stands for “Smart Lander for Investigating Moon” – on the surface of the celestial body.

Japanese media estimates that the mission will cost in the region of ¥10 billion to ¥15 billion ($83.4 million - $125 million). JAXA spokesperson Chihito Onda confirmed to CNN that this estimate is realistic.

The mission is expected to be used to perfect soft-landing technologies, which could be utilized in future, manned expeditions to the moon, or even Mars. The lander will use face recognition software found in digital cameras, which will be repurposed to enable the craft to recognize craters on the surface, Onda said.

The move could be seen as Japan’s attempt to play catchup to its Asian neighbors China and India, which have both notched significant extraterrestrial victories in recent years – China’s Yutu lunar rover outlasted expectations and India successfully put a probe into orbit around Mars the first time of asking.

In 2008 Japan put its SELENE craft – known in Japan as Kaguya, after a Japanese moon princess from a 10th century folk tale – into orbit around the moon to gather data about its surface. The data gathered by the orbiter will also be used to calculate a suitable landing site for the rover.

JAXA has also put a probe on an asteroid, which returned to Earth in 2010.

Along with China, the United States and the former Soviet Union are the only other nations to have so far landed craft on the surface of the moon.

CNN’s Junko Ogura contributed to this report.