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Japan’s Enters Space in Cooperation with the World

By Jean-Marc Rocher
May 31, 2024
It has been over 50 years since the launch of Japan’s first satellite in 1970. Since then, Japan has achieved enormous success in spaceflight, launching several interplanetary probes, completing multiple missions aboard the International Space Station, completing the first asteroid sample return in history, and most recently becoming the fifth nation to land a spacecraft on the Moon.

Unlike the US-Soviet space race of the 1950s and 60s, modern day space exploration has become a cooperative effort between nations, and Japan has prioritized international cooperation in its research and commercial missions. This has included joint research projects with other space agencies, working with nations that do not have their own launch facilities to put communications and weather satellites in orbit, and launching weather research satellites to help developing nations predict weather patterns to protect crop yields.

Notably, Japan worked with the United States, Russia, the EU, and Canada to construct the International Space Station (ISS) during the 2000s, a milestone effort to enable long-term space exploration. Despite tensions between nations on Earth, the ISS has remained an important symbol of global cooperation, with astronauts from a dozen different countries carrying out their mission assignments together.
The International Space Station, composed of modules built by the United States, Russia, the EU, and Japan
Japan’s main responsibility was the construction of the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM), nicknamed Kibo. Launched and assembled over the course of three missions, Kibo consists of pressurized logistics and operations modules used for experimental work and storage, exposed sections used for external experimental work and observation, and a pair of robotic arms that can be used for securing, moving, and servicing equipment outside the space station. Today, it is being used for a wide range of observation and detection experiments in the external section, and investigations into the behaviors of materials and the development of organisms under microgravity in the interior laboratory.

Since the launch of the ISS, Japan has joined numerous agreements of bilateral cooperation on space exploration with other nations. One of the more recent was the signing by Prime Minister Kishida of the Framework Agreement between Japan and the United States of America for Cooperation in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space in 2023. The agreement formalizes the commitment between the two nations to work together on space-related scientific research, education and other operations, sharing data, exchanging experts, and publicly promoting each others’ projects.

One of the most important points of cooperation between Japan and the US on space exploration is the current Artemis Project, currently in its preliminary stages. This ambitious project will pick up where America’s Apollo Program left off in the exploration of the Moon, with the further goals of re-establishing crewed lunar missions and ultimately building permanent bases for long-term habitation. The first crewed flight is scheduled for 2025, with the first lunar landing since 1972 scheduled for 2026. Japan’s role in the project is the development of Hakuto-R, a lunar lander that will carry payloads designed to scout for resources such as water and raw materials, and the Lunar Cruiser, a pressurized rover vehicle that will enable crews to travel over the Moon’s surface for up to 45 days.

Japan has also signed space exploration cooperation agreements with France and the EU, which were most recently reaffirmed in January of 2023. These agreements have resulted in two ambitious interplanetary exploration projects currently under way: BepiColombo and JUICE. BepiColombo is a joint EU-Japan project to explore the planet Mercury. Launched in 2018, the probe has made multiple flybys of Venus and Mercury, and is scheduled to begin orbiting Mercury in 2025 where it will begin mapping the surface and sending back the first-ever data about the planet’s composition, interior, and surroundings. JUICE (Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer) is a multi-national project led by the European Space Agency to explore Jupiter’s icy moons Ganymede, Europa and Callisto, which are believed to have large subsurface oceans . Launched in April 2023, the craft is scheduled to reach its destination in 2031, where the probe instruments, many of which were designed by researchers in Japan, will begin taking measurements.
Rocket launch from the Tanegashima Space Center
Japan also works with other nations that do not have their own launch facilities and rocketry programs. In 2018 a rocket was launched from Japan’s southern Tanegashima Space Center carrying the KhalifaSat Earth Observation imaging satellite. The satellite had been built entirely by engineers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and was raised into a geosynchronous orbit by a Japanese H-IIA rocket. The project was a first for the UAE, and Japan was proud to have contributed to its success. Japan has also launched mini cubesats from the Kibo module of the ISS on behalf of other nations, including Indonesia, Mauritius, and Kenya. These cube satellites are developed and operated by local universities, and will both benefit the science communities of their home nations and strengthen their bonds with Japan.

Japan has also been working to help developing nations by providing atmospheric data to farmers, so that they can better predict weather patterns and optimize their farm production. In a joint pilot project with private sector partners in 2022, data from Japan’s many observation satellites was compiled in an app provided to farmers in Burkina Faso, giving them access to better information about flood and drought risks, and enabling them to take preventive action to protect their crops. It is hoped that this project will spread to other countries and make a significant impact in increasing food security throughout the developing world.

The next 50 years of space exploration will undoubtedly produce new discoveries that will benefit all of humanity. Japan intends to play a vital role in bringing these discoveries to the world, through innovation, imagination, and a strong commitment to international cooperation.
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