Hello Kitty Rockets Into Orbit As Japan's First Catstronaut

Hello Kitty, Japan's character queen of cute, is celebrating her 40th anniversary by getting high... 600km (372.8 miles) above sea level, that is! Having stowed away aboard the Hodoyoshi 3 micro-satellite, a 4cm (1.6 inch) tall Hello Kitty figure now gazes down upon us through a glass window while redirecting 180-character messages from fans to their friends and families.

Hodoyoshi 3 was one of 37 satellites – a world record – launched by a Ukrainian Dnepr-1 rocket from Russia's Dombarovsky launch site last June 19th. Like its other mechanical passengers, Hodoyoshi 3 is quite compact weighing just 56.5 kg (124.55 lbs) and measuring 50-by-70cm (19.7 by 27.5 inches).

Though Hodoyoshi 3's mission is ostensibly to photographically track the environmental effects of the Fukushima and Chernobyl nuclear disasters, operator NExt generation Space system Technology Research Association (NESTRA) has a second agenda: getting more private companies interested in working with satellites.

Sanrio was chosen as the first private partner after the fashion, accessories, gifts and entertainment corporation realized it would be a great way to interest Hello Kitty's millions of fans in space. “Through this project we can make those people interested and stimulate their scientific curiosity,” explained Toshiki Tanaka, the project's lead researcher at the University of Tokyo's Nano-Satellite Center. “We can move their hearts,” added Tanaka in an interview with Reuters.

Like most astronauts, the space-faring Hello Kitty underwent special preparation to help her survive what is admittedly a one-way trip, such as special non-fading paint to protect the mascot from UV rays, cosmic rays and the vacuum of space. As well, ground controllers had to remotely orient the satellite so that the Earth would appear  through the window.

As for the messaging, Sanrio has arranged for fans to submit messages of up to 180 characters messages to a new dedicated website. A select few messages will then be beamed to Hodoyoshi 3 and displayed on a unique miniature scrolling screen visible at the website and Sanrio received 100 submissions the very first day, according to company spokesman Kazuo Tohmatsu. Last but not least, all instructions at the official site are in English: Sanrio knows its fanbase well.