2023 is going to be Japan’s year in space. In a first for humanity, a privately owned lunar lander, built by Japanese private space company ispace, will attempt to land on the lunar surface by April. If successful, this private Japanese lunar landing will be a game changer for space that will challenge the usual way space exploration has been conducted since 1957, when the erstwhile Soviet Union launched Sputnik.
Space has remained a state-dominated enterprise since then. The private sector has provided the technological innovation for systems like rockets or satellites but never takes the lead when it comes to conducting space business in their own right. Now ispace will attempt to collect lunar samples and then sell them to NASA, as per a pre-agreed contract.
While the amount to be paid is just $5,000, the symbolic effect is deeply consequential for the future of the space resources economy. It will set a precedent that private space companies are able to sell the resources they mine in celestial bodies and keep the profits.
Surprisingly, the consequence of this event has been lost amid the strategic analysis of the space economy, which is focused currently on satellite launches and reusable rockets. What ispace will establish is different from just building space platforms – what companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are focused on. Instead ispace is looking toward the space economy of the future – areas that countries like China are focused on, like asteroid mining, space-based solar power (SBSP), and permanent settlements on the Moon and Mars.
Takaichi Sanae, Japan’s minister of space policy, stated in a press conference in November 2022 while granting Japan’s first space resources license to ispace that “if ispace transfers ownership of lunar resources to NASA in accordance with its plan, it will be the first case in the world of commercial transactions of space resources on the Moon by a private operator.”
Japan’s government is certainly aware of the historic occasion. Takaichi noted that this will be a groundbreaking first step toward the establishment of commercial space exploration by private operators. As space development around the world becomes more prevalent, we hope Japan leads the international community by building a track record of resource utilization by private operators based on this law.”
How did Japan get to this position of taking the lead when it comes to space resources? Since 2008, Japan has recognized the critical importance of space to its economy and national security. Under its Basic Space Law established that year, Japan identified “the development and the use of outer space” as core priorities for Japan. This led to the development of a basic space plan as well as establishment of the Strategic Headquarters for Space Development to better prioritize the contribution of space to Japan’s economy and overall society. Japan specified that space development is crucial to strengthen its technical capacities, as well as the international competitiveness of its space industry.
The 2008 Basic Space Law tasked the Japanese state with the responsibility to establish an enabling environment to promote space development and use. Article 16 of the 2008 Basic Space Law points out:
Taking into account the important role of private operators in Space Development and Use, and in order to encourage business activities (including research and development activities) with respect to Space Development and Use in the private sector, aiming at strengthening the technical capabilities and international competitiveness of space industry and other industries of Japan, the State shall, in conducting its own Space Development and Use, consider the procurement of goods and services systematically using the capabilities of private operators, the improvement of launching sites (meaning installations for the launching of rockets), experiments and research facilities as well as other facilities and installations, the promotion of the transfer of results of the research and development with regard to Space Development and Use to private business operators, the promotion of the privatization of the results of research and development with regard to Space Development and Use in the private sector, and the taking of taxational and financial measures and other necessary measures in order to facilitate investment by private operators in the business with regard to Space Development and Use.
Japan’s new approach to space was not limited to building its current space launch capacities and/or satellites. Also note the language Japan used: “space development and use” instead of “space exploration and space science.” The Japanese government thus went about establishing legislation that enabled its private space companies to go and mine resources in space.
On June 23, 2021, Japan enacted the Space Resources Act on Promotion of Business Activities Related to the Exploration and Development of Space Resources (Act No. 83 of 2021), which came into effect in December 2021. This act defines space resources as “water, minerals, and other natural resources that exist in outer space, including on the moon and other celestial bodies.” The Space Resources Act also clarified Japan’s permission process for granting a “space resources extraction permit.”
The most critical part of Japan’s Space Resources Act is its unambiguous statement on who owns the resources they mine on a celestial body, an issue hotly debated for a long time in the space community. Japan’s Space Resources Act “provides that the person who obtained the permit owns the space resources that the person exploits in accordance with the approved activity plan. (Art. 5.).”
Consequently, ispace became the first private space company in the world to be granted a license under Japan’s Space Resources Act to extract resources on the Moon, establish ownership, and then sell the resources to NASA. This will be the first business activity on the Moon.
Hakamada Takeshi , ispace’s Founder and CEO, stated that “with this license, we will transfer ownership of the lunar regolith we expect to collect to NASA during our first mission…commercial space resource utilization is another step toward our goal of establishing the cislunar economy and will support NASA’s goal of a long-term presence on the Moon.”
Formed originally as a team competing for the Google Lunar X Prize, ispace is focused on creating a cislunar economy that is viable and sustainable. Ispace launched its lunar lander (Hakuto R Mission 1 – named after the mythical Japanese moon rabbit) on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on December 11, 2022. On January 2, ispace successfully conducted its second lunar maneuver. What is even more interesting is that, if its lunar landing is successful, the Hakuto-R lander will send out a United Arab Emirates (UAE) rover called Rashid, which will register two firsts: a private soft landing on the lunar surface and, for the UAE, its first lunar rover. (In 2019, SpaceIL of Israel, another Google Lunar X Prize team, attempted to soft land its Beresheet lunar lander but crashed in the last few minutes.)
This ispace business activity, if successful, will establish the space resources economy with an Asia-Pacific nation taking the lead. Japan is also one of the most advanced nations when it comes to asteroid sample return. In 2019, Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa 2 landed on the asteroid Ryugu, created an artificial crater, and then collected samples that Hayabusa 2 brought back to Earth.
Japan’s leadership in establishing space innovation that cuts across policy (the 2008 Basic Space Policy), regulation (2021 Space Resources Act) as well as technology (its 2019 asteroid sample return and 2023 private lunar landing) is changing the game of space. Being a member of the democracy-focused Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which includes space cooperation as a key area of focus, Japan’s ability to demonstrate its space capabilities and innovation increases its strategic influence and reach in the Asia-Pacific and the world.
April 2023 may well register the most eventful paradigm shift in space if ispace, enabled by Japan’s space resources law, soft lands on the lunar surface, collects lunar samples, and then sells them to NASA. Space would have then officially opened for cislunar business, led by a democratic nation.