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Japan, U.S. cooperate in lunar exploration but with different objectives

By Shoji Kodama and Noriaki Koshikawa, editorial board members


The government decided to participate in a plan to explore the moon through international cooperation including the construction of the Lunar-Orbital Platform-Gateway, the so-called Gateway, a space station that orbits the moon. The U.S. leads the Gateway project. Japan and the U.S., however, differ in assessing the significance of lunar exploration. How deeply can Japan be involved in cooperating with international partners? The government needs to establish a firm space development strategy.


“Taking advantage of our strengths, Japan as a strong ally of the U.S. will participate in the new American-led initiative,” said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a meeting of the Strategic Headquarters for Space Development held on Oct. 18.


However, Japan’s plan points to differences between the two countries in assessing the significance of lunar exploration. Japan’s plan lists four items of cooperation including the provision of technology and equipment and the supply of commodities and fuel to the Gateway. Japan offered this cooperation by taking into account the past discussions on the Gateway’s construction.


The plan included a statement saying, “Japan will examine and streamline international space exploration including participation in lunar exploration.” Japan included the statement keeping in mind not only the Gateway but also the “Artemis Program,” a new U.S.-inaugurated program to land astronauts on the moon by 2024.


The U.S. plans to construct the Gateway, which orbits the moon, through international cooperation as is the case with the International Space Station (ISS) that orbits the Earth. Japan was advancing discussions with European countries on constructing a habitation module for the Gateway.


However, the announcement of the “Artemis Program” by the U.S.significantly changed the Gateway program. As the “first stage,” the U.S. will construct the Gateway, which has minimum necessary functions, by 2024. In the “second stage,” the U.S. will move forward with developing the moon as a base for reaching Mars and other celestial bodies. Japan had planned to participate only in the first stage.


The difference also surfaced during a joint press conference between President Hiroshi Yamakawa of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who came to Japan at the end of September.


“Our goal remains Mars,” said the NASA administrator when a reporter asked him the goal of lunar exploration. He meant that the moon is a stepping-stone to Mars. On the other hand, the JAXA president explained, “The moon is the next step after the exploration of low Earth orbit, which is an earth-centered orbit of low altitude.” The president meant that Japan will take advantage of manned space development technology accumulated through the ISS program to expand its area of activity to the moon.


In Japan there have been no strong objections to participating in the Gateway program. “Japan has no reason to dismantle the framework of international cooperation to date and withdraw from the program,” said Deputy chair Takafumi Matsui of the Committee on National Space Policy (CNSP), who is also Director of the Planetary Exploration Research Center, Chiba Institute of Technology. “In addition to scientific reasons, Japan’s participation is important in international cooperation.”


However, Matsui added, “(Since the Artemis Program as a whole) involves new ideas such as manned landing and resource utilization, Japan has to decide on its manner of involvement in the program.” There is an insistent opinion calling for separating the Gateway and the Artemis Program. This indicates that there are differences between Japan and the U.S. over the Artemis Program as a whole, since the U.S. expects Japan to cooperate in the entire program.


CNSP Chair Yoshiyuki Kasai, also honorary chairman of the Central Japan Railway Company, said, “Japan’s policy of participating in the Gateway program includes the Artemis Program.” While Japan specified items for cooperation in the construction of the Gateway, cooperation in the Artemis Program as a whole is subject to discussion in the Basic Plan on Space Policy, a mid-to-long term space development strategy, which will be revised in June 2020. Japan apparently put off making a judgment on the Artemis Program.


In relation to the Gateway, how to deal with the ISS will also become an issue because an operation policy on the ISS after the 2025 has yet to be decided. Japan expends about 40 billion yen a year for the ISS. Compared with the ISS, which is in orbit 400 km above the Earth’s surface, the Gateway will be about 400,000 km from the Earth, which will require an enormous expenditure. As Japan’s space budget is limited, careful discussion on the allocation of funds is necessary.


If without a clear strategy Japan hastily joins the U.S. program, it is questionable whether Japan can achieve satisfactory results. “If Japan is involved in everything, the cost for it would be huge,” said CNSP member Shinichi Nakasuka, a professor at the University of Tokyo. “Participation in the program in a slipshod manner will cause large problems.” 


What is the purpose of Japan’s participating in lunar exploration? How deeply will Japan be able to cooperate in the Artemis Program? The challenge for Japan is to come up with a clear strategy. 

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