Astronaut Koichi Wakata has become the first Japanese commander of the International Space Station (ISS).
In a simple ceremony on board the station, Wakata took over the facility’s command from Russian predecessor Oleg Kotov, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said.
Most previous ISS commanders have hailed from Russia or the United States.
“I am humbled to be assuming command of the station,” Wakata said in a video, as he thanked fellow astronauts who were returning to earth.
“We have had unforgettable memories together.”
Wakata, 50, a veteran of several space missions, left for the ISS in November on Russia’s Soyuz rocket, and will serve as the commander until May when he is scheduled to return home.
He was joined by what has been billed as the world’s first robot astronaut.
Kirobo, a pint-sized android equipped with artificial intelligence, was sent as part of a longer-term project to see how a robot can act as a companion for isolated people, particularly to see if it can develop conversational skills.
Last month, the US space agency Nasa said the life of the US$100 billion ISS would be extended by four years, or until at least 2024, allowing for more global research and scientific collaboration.
The ISS, orbiting 350 kilometres above earth, was launched in 1998. It has more living space than a six-bedroom house and comes complete with internet access, a gymnasium, two bathrooms and a 360-degree bay window offering spectacular views of earth.
It is made up of various working and sleeping modules, and extends about 100 metres, making it four times bigger than the Russian space station Mir and about five times as large as the US Skylab.
It is maintained by a rotating crew of six astronauts and cosmonauts who have hailed from 14 countries.
China’s ambitious manned space programme includes building a twin-module space laboratory, Tiangong-2, next year and a full-scale space station by 2020.
An unmanned cargo vessel is expected to be blasted into orbit in about 2016 to supply Tiangong-2, Xinhua reported last month.
The cargo ship, named Tianzhou (“Heavenly Vessel”), would be carried by the newly developed Long March-7 rocket and dock with the laboratory automatically, said Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China’s manned space programme.
Cargo transport systems that supply goods and fuel were a key technology that China must master to build its own space station, said Zhou. Tiangong-1, China’s first space module, was sent into orbit on September 29, 2011.