Japan's Space Endeavors: From a Peaceful Stance to a Space Power



For decades, Japan remained within the bounds of the ‘peaceful uses of outer space’ as per the Outer Space Treaty (OST) of 1967. Following its defeat in World War II, Japan worked under strict restrictions with hands tied from getting a headway in developing space technologies. Japan may boast an extensive space program that develops launchers and space probes, but it lacks a human flight program. It has relied on the US and Russia to send its astronauts into space. Although the US inked an agreement with Japan on transferring classified launch vehicle technology, Japan was still prevented from transferring the technology to a third party which blocked its prospectus for commercialization.

Japan continued to use American licensed technologies until 1994. However, after NASDA (National Space Development Agency) and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Limited (MHI) joined forces to develop an H-2 Rocket and H-2 series of launchers, the H-2A and H-2B, the restricted scenario slowly began loosening up. It resulted in ease of manufacturing, reliability, and cost-effectiveness.

Still, Japan rose as a leading space-faring nation bearing its crown for high technology and a flair for robotics, stationing itself among elite space-faring nations. It even became the fourth nation to successfully launch a satellite into orbit after the US, Soviet Union, and France. Slowly but intelligently, Japan left a trail of monumental space-technology advancements, preparing take-off to become a space power nation.

Many Take-Offs from Robotics

With a strong base in robotics, Japan became the first country to launch a robotic astronaut, Kirobo, to the International Space Station. Kirobo proved its capability by performing tasks upon receiving verbal instructions from astronaut Koichi Wakata. Not only did robotics help in space missions, but it opened the arena for deep space exploration, with the Hayabusa mission standing as one of the much-acclaimed space missions.

The Hayabusa spacecraft, launched in 2003, became globally known as the first mission to return asteroid dust to earth. Hayabusa-2 fetched an even bigger milestone in 2014 for conducting a detailed analysis of the carbonaceous Ryugu asteroid for one and half years. It studied mineral components and thermal inertia. What made its name sound volumes globally was that it became the first spacecraft to collect surface and subsurface asteroid samples.

Another area of using robotics was when the nation found innovative solutions to tackle the threat of space debris. For that purpose, JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), together with private players, took it into their hands to develop technologies to clear away this hurdle. JAXA tested the concept of an electrodynamic tether that would catch space debris, bringing it down to the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) that eventually annihilated the debris upon re-entry into the atmosphere. The first test, which looked like a fishnet made of aluminum and stainless steel wires, was unsuccessful. But the idea was regarded as feasible and is still being worked on.

In the same space, a Japanese-origin entrepreneur, Nobu Okada, running Astroscale, a Singapore-based orbital debris removal company, pitched many out-of-the-box solutions. The company developed a series of technology with a significant one called the ‘End of Life Service by Astroscale demonstration’ (ELSA-d) that worked on a similar concept as JAXA’s.

Next up is the BIRDS project, supported by the Kyushu Institute of Technology, which developed a successful model of technological assistance facilitating space launches for non-space faring nations. It helped four nations, namely Nigeria, Mongolia, Bangladesh, and Ghana, to launch their one cube satellites aboard SpaceX’s Falcon-9 rocket in 2017. The following year, JAXA launched cubesats for Bhutan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Costa Rica, and Kenya.

Japan has used space diplomacy as a key component of its plan to become a space power. Japan has given its technological skills to significant international cooperation programs such as the International Space Station. For example, some of Japan's previous research efforts aimed to build research competence suitable for the International Space Station. Japan launched Spacelab-J, a module holding various scientific experiments, as part of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Endeavor Space Shuttle mission in 1992. The Japanese Experiment Module (better known as Kibo), a significant component of the International Space Station and its largest module for conducting scientific experiments, was developed due to the experiences learned during prior trips.

Now, US President Joe Biden and Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida have promised to progress in the Artemis program and confirmed to include a Japanese astronaut on Gateway, a human outpost near the moon.


A Take-Off from Past Restraints

Japan will assist the European Space Agency (ESA) in the construction of the primary habitat module for the US-led Gateway orbiting lunar outpost, which will be used for moon landings.

Going Strong on the Defensive

In the realm of outer space, Japan's posture has been generally peaceful. However, changing geopolitics in East Asia has caused Japan to reconsider its position. To strengthen its national security, it began focusing more on the deployment and use of space assets. In 2008, the Japanese Diet changed the country's Basic Space Law to align it with the OST. The change has allowed Japan to deploy defense capabilities in space, paving space for the more military use of space in the future.

Three primary considerations have triggered this strategic rethink.

  • One is that the US security guarantee has been a key source of concern for Japan. 
  • Second is the growing threat from North Korea, which is becoming increasingly hostile. 
  • Third, Japan appears to understand that positioning strategic assets in space is critical to its own recovery. Demonstrating technological strength in high-tech areas is increasingly seen as a hallmark of great power.

To end this, through the Quasi-Zenith Satellite System, JAXA burnt its night oil to build its own Position, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) capabilities (QZSS). Concerns about foreign interference with the US Global Positioning System (GPS) led to the development of the system. Unlike China's Beidou, Russia's GLONASS (Global Navigation Satellite System), and India's IRNSS (Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System), the QZSS is a satellite-based augmentation system that complements the GPS.

Japan progressed toward achieving trustworthy, indigenous capabilities in outer space, despite severe limits and many constraints. Japan's reputation as a major power has been enhanced by JAXA's attempts to use the country's technological expertise for the benefit of the global space community. It has carved a rightful position in the pantheon of space-faring by charting its way in a compassionate and peaceful manner.

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