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Space defense no reason to ax gentler projects

by Rowan Hooper

For a country with a constitution “forever renouncing war” (Article 9), Japan spends an awful lot of money on its military. In 2005 it was the fifth largest military spender in the world. And now there is the unsettling news that Japan is expanding its powerful self-defense capability into space.

A bill allowing the use of space for defense purposes looks certain to be passed during the current session of the Diet. My first thought on this was that Japan wanted a sort of “Star Wars” defense system like that envisaged by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and that indeed is what the Japanese Communist Party fears and one of the reasons they voted against the bill last week.

With North Korea testing ballistic missiles in Japanese airspace, I have some sympathy with the Japanese desire for technology of this kind.

But it seems that missile defense is not the top priority when the new bill is passed. The bill will allow Japan to develop space “in ways to contribute to its national security” — in other words, to develop spy satellites. I’m actually surprised Japan doesn’t already have spy satellites, when it has so many other kinds of satellites already orbiting the planet.

There are dozens, from the regular communications satellites that allow global positioning system devices to operate, to astronomy satellites using infrared and X-ray telescopes. There are also important weather satellites, monitoring typhoon development around the country.

Many satellites, incidentally, have poetic names. There is Hayabusa (peregrine falcon), which is a probe rather than a satellite and which intercepted a near-Earth asteroid with the aim of taking a sample from the surface; it is due to return to Earth in 2010.

Then there is my favorite-named satellite, Akebono. This satellite observes the magnetosphere of the Earth, and the word means “dawn.” (I had imagined a giant, wobbling, long-legged satellite, named after the former sumo yokozuna.)

The point is, Japan’s aerospace exploration agency, JAXA, has been and is involved in some inspiring missions, of great scientific importance. It would be a shame if military pressure started to eat into the scientific budget.

This year JAXA plans to launch a greenhouse-gas observation satellite, and there are plans for missions to Venus and Mercury, due to launch 2010 and 2013, respectively. Longer term, there are ambitious plans for a solar-sail mission to Jupiter, and a manned mission to the Moon.

Some of these are independent, and some are in collaboration with NASA or with the European Space Agency.

In March this year NASA launched the Japanese Experimental Module, better known as Kibo (meaning “Hope”). Incidentally, sometimes the names given to space probes and missions are more tentative, and I think this is a bad thing. There’s no room for hesitancy or sentimentality in a space mission, so why name missions in a way that is not decisive? In 1998 the satellite “Nozomi (Wish)” was launched to Mars but failed to achieve Mars orbit.

Despite the whimsical name, however, Kibo is something special. The largest module for the International Space Station (the pressurized part is 11 meters long), on Kibo there is an exposed facility, known as the terrace. Here astronauts, wearing suits and helmets of course, will be able to conduct experiments fully exposed to the harshness of space.

But it’s not even that which makes Kibo different. There will be educational facilities. Water-flea eggs and plants will be hatched and grown on board, and returned to Earth for study — by schoolchildren. The children will examine eggs and plants grown on Earth and compare them to the specimens grown in space.

There are also some other, unprecedented projects slated for Kibo. In the microgravity of the ISS, water and ink behave differently than they do on Earth, so the possibilities for artists are fascinating. To this end, amazingly, there are art facilities on board.

“Kibo is Japan’s first human space facility, where Japanese scientists can do things for themselves in space for the first time,” said Tetsuo Tanaka, the director of the Space Environment Utilization Center at JAXA. “An art project with Kibo is also underway. I’m really looking forward to seeing artistic expression in the space environment.”

“It’s fantastic to see a space development like Kibo. Apart from the high-end science experiments planned, it’s exciting and inspirational that children have been factored into the plans. We’re planning to continue developing new educational programs where children can take part in space experiments, and we hope our programs will help get children interested in space, science, and human space development.”

Another worry raised by opponents of the new space-defense bill is that it will enable the government to keep some aspects of space development secret, in the name of national security. We must hope that the bill passing through the Diet won’t in any way interfere with Kibo and the dozens of other nonmilitary projects JAXA has planned.

The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese, titled “Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru (The Evolving Human: How New Biology Explains Your Journey Through Life),” is published by Shinchosha; ¥1,500.