Japan is joining the push to return to the moon

Japan is joining the push to return to the moon
© Getty Images

According to Space News, Japan has recently passed a space resources law similar to ones enacted by the United States, Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that would give Japanese companies permission to “prospect for, extract and use various space resources.” The new law is an indication that Japan intends to be part of the international return to the moon, led by NASA. Japan is a signatory of the Artemis Accords that seeks to spell out rules for cooperation in the exploration of space, particularly the lunar surface.

More recently, a group of Japanese companies, academics and politicians issued a document called the Lunar Industrial Vision. The document proposes that the moon be incorporated in the Earth’s economic sphere, in effect uniting the Earth and the moon into one “ecosystem” in a concept called “Planet 6.0.” The document advocates that the Japanese government undertake a number of policy initiatives to make this development happen.

In a way, the Lunar Industrial Vision appears to be an attempt to reboot “Japan, Inc.,” a system that the country established in the 1970s and 1980s that involved cooperation, at least to some extent, between the commercial sector and government with a goal of dominating certain industrial sectors. Business Insider relates how that system catapulted Japan to become the second-largest economy on Earth at one time and even, some believed, threatened to supplant the United States as number one. Japan, Inc. collapsed in the mid-1990s for a number of reasons. China has now become the second-largest economy on the planet, threatening the United States’ position as number one.

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This time, the proposed Japanese lunar strategy is not aimed at the United States but rather China, a country bent on establishing a hegemony both on Earth and in space. Indeed, Japan, which is threatened by China both economically and militarily, sees the United States as a natural ally, hence its membership in the growing Artemis Alliance.

A company called iSpace, which signed the Lunar Industrial Vision document, is one of the first practical manifestations of Japan’s push to the moon. The company originated as Team Hakuto, one of the participants in the Google Lunar XPrize, a private competition to land a robotic probe on the moon. Even though the Google Lunar XPrize ended with no winner, several of the participants, including the Japanese team, went commercial with the view of sending payloads to the lunar surface as a business.

The first mission to the moon that iSpace intends to mount is called Hakuto-R, according to Techcrunch. Among other payloads, the Japanese lander will deliver the UAE’s Rashid rover to the lunar surface. The UAE is another member of the Artemis Alliance. The Gulf Arab state has already deployed a robotic probe called the Hope into Mars orbit. The first Hakuto-R is due to be launched in 2022 onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Three companies selected by the Canadian Space Agency will also contribute to the iSpace mission. Mission Control Space Services will contribute an AI system to the Rashid rover that will recognize lunar geology as it traverses the moon’s surface, Canadensys Aerospace will provide cameras to record significant events of the mission. NGC Aerospace will contribute an autonomous navigation system.

A second mission is scheduled for 2023, carrying a transformable lunar robot provided by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA. Beyond Mission 2, iSpace intends to quicken the pace of its missions to deploy “swarms” of rovers on the lunar surface in advance of creating an “industrial platform” on Earth’s nearest neighbor.

Farther in the future, Japanese astronauts will almost certainly fly on Artemis missions to the moon and serve on the eventual lunar base, just as they have onboard the International Space Station. According to Space.com, JAXA and Toyota are developing a pressurized “Lunar Cruiser” that will take astronauts on long-duration traverses across the moon’s surface.

The first race to the moon was a head-to-head competition between the United States and the Soviet Union with bragging rights as the prize. The current race to the moon features the “Artemis Alliance” pitted against an axis of the Peoples Republic of China and the Russian Federation. Japan, like a number of other countries, has recognized the great opportunities, scientific, commercial and political, that returning to the moon provides. The country seems intent on taking full advantage of those opportunities.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and, most recently, “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times and the Washington Post, among other venues.