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Japan's Major Breakthroughs in Space Development Continue [ 2010.08.26 ]

[NewsJapan.net] A series of major breakthroughs by Japan in the area of space development has been making headlines recently. Among others, there have been the completion of the Japanese experimental module Kibo for the International Space Station (ISS) in July 2009; the successful liftoff of the H-2 Transfer Vehicle (HTV) carrying supplies to the ISS on board the new large domestically developed H-2B rocket in September of the same year; the successful launch of the H-2A rocket carrying Japan's first Venus climate orbiter Akatsuki and the world's first space yacht Ikaros in May 2010; and the return of the asteroid explorer Hayabusa to Earth from the asteroid Itokawa in June 2010. In addition, Japan is also attracting global attention lately in the field of manufacturing "nano-satellites," which weigh less than 50 kilograms and cost the relatively small sum of 50 to 200 million yen.

H-2B Rocket Puts HTV into Scheduled Orbit

The H-2B rocket, the largest in the history of Japan's space development, was jointly developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. The outstanding feature of the H-2B is its increased thrust provided by equipping it with two units of the main engine of its predecessor, the H-2A. It also has the capacity to carry a stationary satellite weighing eight tons. The Space Shuttle, which has been used to transport astronauts and supplies to the ISS, is scheduled to be retired in 2010, so expectations and attention are growing over Japan's HTV both at home and abroad. Because the H-2B makes use of existing technology, its development cost was only about 42 billion yen-less than half that of the H-2A. It is hoped that this cost reduction will lead to the strengthening of Japan's competitiveness in the satellite launching business.

H-2A Rocket Launches Japan's First Venus Climate Orbiter Akatsuki

The Venus climate orbiter Akatsuki lifted off for that planet on May 21. According to the Mainichi Shimbun of May 11, even though the rotational speed of the planet is only 6 km/h around its equator, far slower than Earth's 1,700 km/h, the atmosphere on Venus constantly flows from east to west at a speed of about 400 km/h. Why does its atmosphere move so fast? The biggest mission of the Akatsuki is to explore the mechanism of this atmospheric movement, a phenomenon known as "super rotation."

Akatsuki was launched by Japan's large domestically developed H-2A No. 17. According to the evening edition of The Nikkei on May 21, the H-2A rocket was first launched in 2001. Despite the failure of the H-2A No. 6, which carried an information-gathering satellite, in 2003, the launches of the H-2A have been successful on 11 consecutive occasions since No. 7 in 2005. This gives an overall success rate of 94.1%. It is hoped that the latest successful launch will boost orders from overseas satellite makers in the future.

World's First Space Yacht Ikaros Successfully Unrolls Its Sail

On June 11 JAXA announced that Ikaros, the world's first kite-craft launched together with Akatsuki on May 21, got through the "most difficult stage" (Sankei Shimbun, June 12), the unrolling of its sail, and has started full-scale sailing. Ikaros is the first space yacht in the world designed to unroll its 14-meter-square sail in space and sail only by the pressure of sunlight, as a yacht does with the wind. JAXA had been trying to unroll the polymer membrane sail of Ikaros. Assistant Professor Osamu Mori of JAXA commented, "Now we have the first space yacht in the world. We want to make a successful cruise that can be a model for future challenges" (Sankei). In view of the fact that Ikaros does not need to carry fuel, JAXA is planning to use this technology to probe distant planets, such as Jupiter.

Asteroid Probe Hayabusa Returns to Earth after Seven-Year Odyssey

The Japanese space probe Hayabusa, which achieved a landing on the asteroid Itokawa, 300 million kilometers away from Earth, returned to Earth on June 13 after overcoming many difficulties during its seven-year space journey. It thus became the world's first probe to return home after making a landing on a celestial body other than the moon. The major newspapers reported this as "a great accomplishment in the history of space exploration" (Yomiuri Shimbun editorial, June 15) and "This achievement is one step ahead of the USA, the front-runner of space exploration, and will have a huge impact upon space exploration around the world" (The Nikkei, June 14). When Hayabusa returned, Prime Minister Naoto Kan made a phone call to Professor Junichiro Kawaguchi, the project manager at JAXA, saying, "The return of Hayabusa is nothing but a miracle. It demonstrates Japan's capability of high technology to the world" and "This result will give encouragement to many people and stimulate children to become interested in science."

Attention is also focused on the satellite technology of Japanese companies that allowed Hayabusa to return to Earth after seven long years. According to media reports, the Hayabusa project involved both major companies, including NEC Corp., which led the development of Japan's original "ion engine," and minor specialized manufacturers engaged in the development of other engines and parts. It was "the advanced technology of manufacturers and small factories" (Yomiuri, June 15) that became the driving force to turn researchers' ideas into reality. It is hoped that this success will have a major impact on Japan's space-related industry. NEC is targeting sales of 2 billion yen over the three years from fiscal 2011 in the United States, the biggest commercial satellite market.

Japan Plans Moon Exploration by Robot in Five Years

According to the Mainichi on May 26, a governmental council for moon exploration on May 25 announced that it is in the planning stage to send a self-propelled robot to the moon in five years and construct an energy-independent unmanned base there in ten years to bring moon rocks back to Earth. Amid increasingly fierce international competition in the field of space development and space business, expectations for Japan's high level of technology are growing.

(Copyright 2010 Foreign Press Center, Japan)

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