Tokyo Report | Security | East Asia

To Infinity and Beyond: Japan’s Rise as a Space Power

Japan has steadily progressed toward achieving reliable, indigenous capabilities in outer space. 

By Anupama Vijayakumar for
To Infinity and Beyond: Japan’s Rise as a Space Power

This computer graphics image provided by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) shows an asteroid and asteroid explorer Hayabusa2.

Credit: JAXA via AP

Japan has emerged as a leading space-faring nation over the past few decades. A renowned world leader in high technology, the country has drawn from its expertise in key areas such as robotics to mark its place among elite space-faring nations. Notably, unlike other major players like the United States, China, and Russia, Japan has achieved its status while staying within the bounds of what constitutes “peaceful uses of outer space” as per the Outer Space Treaty (OST) of 1967. Japan initially had three institutions handling aerospace activities – the Institute of Space and Astronautical Sciences (ISAS), the National Space Development Agency (NASDA) and the National Aerospace Laboratory of Japan (NAL). However, the consolidation of the three entities to form the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in 2003 was a landmark moment in the nation’s emergence as a major space power. 

Space research in Japan worked under strict constraints in the immediate years following its defeat in World War II. As per the terms of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, the country was forbidden from developing aviation and aerospace technologies. Such restrictions prevented Japan from getting a headway in developing indigenous space technologies, even though it was the fourth nation to successfully launch a satellite into orbit after the United States, Soviet Union, and France. In 1969, these restrictions were loosened, although not entirely, with the U.S. and Japan signing an agreement on transferring unclassified launch vehicle technology. Japan was still not allowed to transfer the technology to a third party, hampering prospects for commercialization. The dependence on technologies licensed from American firms continued up until 1994 when a collaborative effort involving NASDA and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Limited (MHI) resulted in the development of the H-2 rocket. The H-2 series of launchers, the H-2A and thereafter the H-2B, have steadily improved with regard to the ease of manufacturing, reliability, and cost effectiveness. Engineers at JAXA and MHI are currently developing the more powerful H-3 rocket, which is expected to be operational soon.

Japan has relied heavily on its niche strength in robotics to emerge as a key space-faring nation. In 2013, Japan became the first country to launch a robotic astronaut, Kirobo, to the International Space Station (ISS). Kirobo successfully demonstrated its ability to perform tasks upon receiving verbal instructions from astronaut Koichi Wakata. The use of robotics in space missions has extended to the arena of deep space exploration as well through the much-acclaimed Hayabusa missions. The Hayabusa spacecraft, which was launched in 2003, entered the history books as the first mission to return asteroid dust to earth. Its successor, the Hayabusa-2, has already been hailed as a bigger success. The spacecraft, which was launched in December 2014, conducted a detailed analysis of the carbonaceous Ryugu asteroid over one-and-a-half years, studying parameters such as mineral composition and thermal inertia. Most significantly, it gained the distinction of becoming the first spacecraft to collect surface and subsurface samples from an asteroid. The scientific world is eagerly awaiting the return of Hayabusa-2 in 2020. 

Another area where Japan has looked to employ its prowess in robotics is in finding innovative solutions to tackle the threat of space debris. JAXA as well as various private players have been at the forefront of developing technologies that could potentially address this challenge, which is threatening the entire global space-faring community. JAXA has tested the concept of an electrodynamic tether that would catch space debris and float it down to the Low Earth Orbit (LEO), from where these junk particles would eventually burn up on re-entry into the atmosphere. The first test of this concept, involving a fishing net-like mechanism made up of aluminum and stainless steel wires, was unsuccessful. However, the idea has not been dropped and the feasibility of such a mechanism is still being explored. Meanwhile, Astroscale, a Singapore-based orbital debris removal company run by the Japanese-born entrepreneur Nobu Okada, has also proposed several out-of-the-box solutions. The company has a series of technology demonstrations scheduled for 2020 including that of the End-of-Life Service by Astroscale – demonstration (ELSA-d). The ELSA-d spacecraft would attempt to grab on to pieces of space debris and lower them down to the atmosphere.

Japan has also employed space diplomacy as a core part of its strategy to emerge as a space power. Japan has offered its technological expertise to benefit major initiatives in international cooperation such as the ISS. For instance, some of Japan’s earlier research attempts looked toward gaining research expertise suited for the ISS. As a part of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Endeavor Space Shuttle program, Japan launched Spacelab-J in 1992, a module housing several scientific experiments. The lessons gained through such missions led to the development of the Japanese Experiment Module (better known as Kibo), which is a key component of the ISS and its largest such module to conduct scientific experiments. Meanwhile, JAXA, in association with NASDA, has also developed cargo ships to ferry supplies to the ISS. The agency is in the process of developing the more powerful H-3 launcher to carry the cargo transporter HTV-X to deliver heavier payloads to the ISS.

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In the coming years, Japan also stands to figure prominently in the lunar exploration missions initiated by the United States. Continuing its collaboration with NASA and the other ISS members, JAXA is positioned to be an important collaborator in the Gateway lunar orbital platform venture. As a part of this multi-agency mission, JAXA has proposed sending its astronauts, as well as developing a habitation module similar to Kibo to undertake scientific experiments. The agency, in collaboration with MHI, has also signaled its intention to modify the H-3 rocket for traveling a greater distance than what is required for the ISS. Meanwhile, JAXA is also believed to be working with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) on a lunar mission in the coming years.

Japan’s ventures in space cooperation haven’t been limited to the major powers. The “BIRDS” project (Joint Global Multination Birds Satellite Project) supported by the Kyushu Institute of Technology has demonstrated a successful model of technological assistance in facilitating space launches for non space-faring nations. Japanese assistance through this program enabled four nations — Nigeria, Mongolia, Bangladesh, and Ghana — to launch their own cube satellites aboard SpaceX’s Falcon-9 rocket in June 2017. In 2018, JAXA also launched cubesats on behalf of Bhutan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Costa Rica, and Kenya. The satellites designed by these nations are developed and launched from the Kibo module on the ISS.

Japan’s posturing in the outer space arena has mostly been peaceful. However, the emerging geopolitics in East Asia have prompted Japan to re-evaluate this stance. The country has started to focus more on the deployment and utilization of space assets to bolster its national security. The Japanese Diet in 2008 amended the country’s Basic Space Law to bring it in line with the OST. The amendment has enabled Japan to deploy defensive capabilities in space, paving the way for increased military use of outer space. 

Three main factors have prompted this strategic re-think. The perceived doubts regarding the reliability of its security guarantee from the United States have been a major area of concern for Japan. Another extenuating factor is the rising threat from an increasingly hostile neighbor, North Korea. Third, Japan seems to be cognizant of the fact that the placement of strategic assets in space is crucial to its own resurgence, as displaying technological prowess in high technology sectors is increasingly regarded as a hallmark of a great power. To this end, JAXA has been concertedly working toward evolving its own Position, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) capabilities through the Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS). The system was conceptualized amid concerns about external interference with the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS). Unlike China’s Beidou, Russia’s GLONASS (Global Navigation Satellite System), and India’s IRNSS (Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System), the QZSS  intends to complement the GPS and works as a satellite-based augmentation system. The four-satellite constellation focuses on the Asia-Oceania region with a specific focus on Japan. The system boasts of an accuracy of up to 10 centimeters in comparison to GPS, whose margin of error is around 10 meters.

Operating within severe constraints and undeterred by multiple failures, Japan has steadily progressed toward achieving reliable, indigenous capabilities in outer space. JAXA’s efforts to capitalize on the country’s technological expertise for the benefit of the global space-faring community has certainly elevated Japan’s status as a major power. It has charted its course in a rather benevolent and peaceful manner and crafted for itself a rightful place at the pantheon of space-faring. In multiple instances, Japan has been pivotal to demonstrating effective international models for technological cooperation, even as the narrative on geopolitical competition kept strengthening. The success of missions like Hayabusa-2 has also enabled Japan to emerge as a knowledge powerhouse as the data collected from such ventures could hold the key to unlocking several mysteries of the universe. While the country has so far been unique in refraining from participating in the space weaponization bandwagon, it clearly has the technological capability to do so if required. If the security situation in East Asia worsens, it would not be a major surprise if Japan resorts to such overtures in the coming years.

Anupama Vijayakumar is currently pursuing her Ph.D. on the interrelation between technology and power at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, India.