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As space race heats up, Japan needs to find its booster

China and India are keen to put people into space, while Tokyo checks its wallet

An Epsilon-3 rocket lifts off from the Uchinoura Space Center in Kimotsuki, Kagoshima Prefecture, on Jan. 18.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- On Jan. 18, Japan's space agency successfully launched its Epsilon-3 rocket, a small, solid-fuel rocket designed to carry satellites into orbit. While the launch came off without a hitch, it left many questions unanswered about the Epsilon program, and about Japan's space program in general.

The limitations of Japan's space program are becoming all too apparent. With international competition making big strides, driven both by private enterprise and government programs, and with shifts in the political and economic environments of space programs, Japan needs to figure out what its priorities are, and how it can focus its limited resources on areas where it can best excel.

Unless the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency maps out a clear marketing strategy, the Epsilon project may end up squandering a potential gold mine. More than ever, Japan needs a strategic approach, choosing specific areas for intensive investment. 

International cooperation has been building toward sending astronauts back to the moon. But while Japan has produced 11 astronauts -- including Norishige Kanai, currently aboard the International Space Station -- it has shunned the development of manned rockets and space vehicles.

Instead, it has largely been a financial backer of the U.S. manned program, contributing considerable funds for nearly 30 years in return for training Japanese astronauts and sending them to space.

Japan's real forte is unmanned space technology. Its mainstay H-2A rocket is one of the world's most reliable. The ISS relies heavily on the Konotori unmanned cargo transporter. The Hayabusa probe has brought back rock samples from an asteroid.

Yet the Epsilon project is an example of the challenges Japan faces. The project has progressed slowly, with four and a half years elapsing between the first Epsilon rocket launch and the third one early this year.

Even in unmanned space technology, Japan's presence is modest. Although the frequency of its small rocket launches is increasing, it has yet to come up with a strategy to win commercial orders.

"It is too optimistic to expect immediate business opportunities. We must make the rocket more competitive," said project manager Takayuki Imoto after the Jan. 18 launch.

Unless launch costs are reduced to below 3 billion yen ($27.5 million) from over 4 billion yen currently, the project may not be able to compete with overseas rivals.

Global demand for such launches will likely keep increasing with the growing industrial use of information provided by satellites. Yet the environment under which space programs are operating has been changing rapidly, with many new competitors, including private enterprises such as Elon Musk's SpaceX, and Blue Origin, set up by founder Jeff Bezos. 

At the 2014 International Space Exploration Forum in Washington, the head of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration stressed the need for joint international investment in future programs, referring to the ISS. Japan's then-minister of science, Hakubun Shimomura, pledged Japanese cooperation.

But while Japan makes pledges and slowly tests rockets, other countries are leaping ahead. China launched a small space station in 2011, and plans to send a manned expedition to the moon in 2030. India is also preparing for manned space flight.

On Dec. 11, U.S. President Donald Trump announced a new manned space exploration plan that he called "an important step in returning American astronauts to the moon." 

The next day, the Japanese government revised its own space policy, officially deciding to participate in the U.S. plan. Japan has little choice but to follow the U.S. lead in formulating its policy for sending astronauts into space, as it lacks its own technology to do so.

Trump has drastically shifted the focus of U.S. manned spaced exploration to the moon, away from that of his predecessor Barack Obama, who was focused on Mars. In September, the Trump administration won a pledge from Russia to cooperate on a plan to build a manned station near the moon.

This move toward U.S.-Russia cooperation changed the situation for Japan's space program, said Ichiro Fujisaki, distinguished professor at Tokyo's Sophia University, a former ambassador to the U.S. who leads a panel of experts on space program development convened by the science and technology ministry on Oct. 11. The panel endorsed the government's new space policy without objections.

"We were aware that deliberations would not move forward before the U.S. showed its policy direction," a science ministry official said.

Japan's annual space-related budget is around 300 billion yen, less than a tenth that of the U.S. That should be doubled, says Atsushi Sunami, vice president of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, adding that appropriations for investments in science and technology should also be reviewed.

But such a steep budget increase is unlikely. To remain a major space power, Japan needs to further improve its unmanned technology to make it stand out. However, such a focus would mean Japan will be surpassed by China and India in manned technology, a senior JAXA official conceded.

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