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Latest update : 2008-04-23

Japan will send its prized cherry tree seeds to the International Space Station for six months in a bid to determine the effects of microgravity while also boosting the space programme's popularity at home.

Japan's famed cherry trees have carried the hearts of a nation for centuries but they will soon enjoy another honour -- their seeds being blasted into outer space.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has approved a project to send the seeds of cherry trees to the Japanese laboratory at the International Space Station, which is orbiting above Earth, officials said Tuesday.

Japan Manned Space Systems Corp., a Tokyo-based private-sector consortium of 55 companies, organised the cherry seeds' half-a-year stay in space in part to see whether or how microgravity would affect them.

"Scientific observation is one reason. But we also want the seeds to travel in space on our behalf as few ordinary people can go now," Manned Space Systems spokeswoman Yuko Otake said.

Cherry trees' annual springtime blooming is a time for nationwide revelry in Japan, where friends and colleagues hold boisterous picnics to enjoy the short-lived beauty of the blossoms.

The space project will send lily and violet seeds along with the seeds from 10 cherry trees, including three designated by the government as natural treasures and touted as producing Japan's most beautiful blossoms.

One of the three ancient trees, named Takizakura, or "cascade cherry blossoms," draws 300,000 viewers for the three weeks it is in bloom in the small northern town of Miharu.

Elementary school pupils in Miharu will pick some 200 fallen seeds in June or July for the space project. The town will share the returned seeds with research institutions.

"Since the seeds will be returned with a certificate that they have gone to space, we hope to use them to promote tourism here while drawing children's interest in science," town official Sadafumi Hirata told AFP by telephone.

The town will also plant some seeds, he said. "We are very proud that our tree was selected among many cherry blossoms that represent Japan," he said.

The seeds will be lifted off into space around October and are expected to return to Earth early next year.

Japan has an increasingly ambitious space programme and last month began to set up its first space laboratory, which was blasted off on the US space shuttle Endeavour.

Date created : 2008-04-22