Japan has big plans for microsatellites
MASAAKI DEMURA, Nikkei staff writer
TOKYO -- Even in the vastness of space, useful things come in small packages. These packages take the form of so-called microsatellites, which are significantly cheaper to launch than their full-size counterparts. Japan is hoping to turn the contraptions into a cash cow for its satellite industry, which relies heavily on public-sector orders.
Since 2013, worldwide microsatellite launches have been accelerating, with the numbers topping 100 in both 2014 and 2015. They can cost as little as a hundredth of the price of large satellites. Their dimensions are typically in the tens of centimeters, and they weigh up to 100kg.
Conventional models, in contrast, weigh thousands of kilograms.
In Japan, the Committee on National Space Policy -- a panel under the Cabinet Office -- has begun discussing ways to tap into demand for the compact crafts. Since space is an inherently risky business, one goal is to create an environment where companies feel confident enough to take the gamble.
To support the industry, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry set up a booth at this year's Small Satellite Conference, a trade show in the U.S. state of Utah. This gave 20 organizations, including small-to-midsize businesses and universities, a chance to plug their technologies.
At present, Japan's space industry gets 90% of its orders from government-affiliated organizations, which mainly use large satellites. In Europe, the ratio is closer to 50%.
The Japanese government hopes that promoting microsatellites will expand the scope of the domestic market, while also helping companies capture overseas market share.
From ice floes to urban planning
Emerging countries are particularly promising customers, since microsatellites offer a fairly affordable way to compile geographical information and enhance telecommunications.
And at home, companies are finding new commercial applications for satellites. One player to watch is Weathernews, a meteorological information provider headquartered in Chiba, near Tokyo. It plans to launch a satellite of its own, possibly by this winter. The idea is to introduce a service that monitors Arctic Ocean ice and provides navigation information for ships passing through the sea.
The company is working on its satellite with Axelspace, a Tokyo-based microsatellite developer. The University of Tokyo and Tokai University are helping with the data analysis side of the endeavor.
Axelspace, for its part, plans to start providing satellite imagery for the mining industry as well as urban development in emerging countries.
Aside from helping companies pitch their technologies abroad, the government is arranging for multiple microsatellites to be shot into space on a single large rocket. This is aimed at minimizing costs and creating steady demand for rocket launches. Through the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, known as JAXA, the government is also backing development of rockets specifically designed for microsatellites.
This summer, the Committee on National Space Policy stepped up efforts to work out a policy vision for the space industry. This is expected to include a recommendation for the government to actively purchase satellite imagery from domestic businesses.
In the U.S., private-sector demand for microsatellites is high, and the federal government supports the growth of startups that are braving the cosmos. NASA has commissioned rocket launches, as well as development and operation of microsatellites, to startups such as Space Exploration Technologies, better known as SpaceX.
Yuya Nakamura, Axelspace's president and chief executive, said it is important for Japan's government to vouch for the nation's startups by becoming their first customer.
"If the government shares risks with us, it would be easier for us to find customers in the private sector," Nakamura said.
Data from microsatellites could be used in a variety of ways -- from estimating crop yields and maintaining resource pipelines to helping retailers develop marketing strategies. Still, it is not necessarily smooth sailing for satellite ventures. Competition is stiff, and there are only so many contracts to go around. Even in the U.S., the global industry leader, some startups are floundering.
To make the business work, Japan would do well to encourage cross-industry collaboration between microsatellite developers and companies that could use some data from above.