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Japan mulls funding study on joining U.S. satellite constellation initiative

Japan’s Ministry of Defense is considering earmarking funds in the FY2021 budget for studying Japan’s possible participation in “satellite constellations,” the pillar of the new U.S. missile defense initiative, Sankei learned from several sources in the government on Aug. 30. The constellations will be used to track and intercept next-generation missiles under development by China, Russia, and North Korea. As the cost of full-scale participation is expected to be high, the government plans to conduct a thorough cost-benefit analysis and a careful study of its feasibility.


According to the U.S., early warning satellites are usually launched in stationary orbits at an altitude of 36,000 kilometers. In the new initiative, the U.S. says more than 1,000 small satellites will be deployed at lower altitudes, between 300 and 1,000 kilometers. Twenty demonstrator satellites will be launched in 2022.


While a regular-sized satellite costs several tens of billions of yen each, a small satellite could cost as little as about 500 million yen. The plan is expected to carry a total price tag of more than 1 trillion yen.


The Japanese government will closely observe U.S. progress with the initiative and consider participation using technologies in which Japan has expertise, such as infrared sensors capable of high-resolution, broad-range data collection. Japan hopes that participation in the project would further strengthen the alliance between the two countries.


China, Russia, and North Korea have developed hypersonic missiles that fly at a speed more than five times the speed of sound and at a trajectory that is hard to predict. Some of those missiles can fly low to the ground and regain altitude before impact. China, Russia, and North Korea are also developing “killer satellites,” satellites tasked with the destruction of other nations’ satellites.


Deploying a large number of satellites at low altitudes will enable the U.S. to track missiles flying with irregular trajectories. At the same time, the large number ensures that even if some of the satellites come under attack, others will be able to perform the  tracking function. However, the U.S. has not disclosed details of the the plan, and many of the technical aspects remain unclear, causing some in the Japanese government to take a more cautious approach to joining the initiative.


In the U.S., the private-sector space industry is taking the lead in the commercialization and development of communication networks using a large number of small satellites. The Japanese government hopes to promote domestic industry as it progresses in research on the satellite constellation project.


In late July, a team of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) members tasked with studying missile defense (chair: Former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera) issued a proposal calling for the government to consider using satellite constellations, along with unmanned aerial vehicles, to detect and track hypersonic missiles.

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