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In a move that could lead to the realization of “space factories,” Japan’s space agency said Saturday it will make the world’s first attempt to manufacture in space photonic crystals to be used in commercial laser equipment.

The project plans to utilize the low-gravity conditions at the International Space Station to make the crystals, officials of the National Space Development Agency of Japan told Kyodo News. It will be conducted jointly by the agency, optical equipment maker Hamamatsu Photonics K.K., Nagoya City University and other organizations.

Over two years beginning in the summer of 2005, the three-dimensional photonic crystals, an optical material, will be made at the space station and then brought back to Earth for high-precision reprocessing and use as a key component in commercial laser equipment.

The crystals are formed by solidifying micro ceramic beads of 0.1 micron in diameter at equal intervals using flexible acrylic materials. The speed-of-light waves passing through the crystals can be changed by varying the interval distance and thus they can be used to change wave forms in equipment of high laser output.

When attempting to make high-quality photonic crystals on Earth, the intervals between the ceramic beads become irregular due to gravity.

The United States and European countries are also conducting experiments to make new materials in space, but this project will be the world’s first in which the “made in space” products will actually be used in industrial goods.

The project will include development of palm-size equipment that will be capable of making more than a dozen such crystals, each about the size of a person’s little finger, at once.

The equipment will be delivered to the space station on an unmanned Russian transport craft and left there for about three months before being brought back to Earth with the rotation of the station’s crew.

The cost of two to three deliveries is expected to total several hundred billion yen.

Hamamatsu Photonics is known for manufacturing the photoelectron multiplier tubes that were decisive in the detection of cosmic neutrinos by Masatoshi Koshiba, who jointly received the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physics for the achievement.

Policy rethink urged

WASHINGTON (Kyodo) The Diet resolution on space policy enacted in 1969 should be revised to authorize military-related “defense” space activities, according to a report released recently by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The report, which assesses U.S.-Japan space policy and outlines recommendations for a framework for cooperation, also suggests that the United States and Japan should each designate a government official to handle security-related space policy issues.

The 1969 resolution stipulates the principle of using space for peaceful purposes. The resolution should be revised because changes in technology and regional circumstances have rendered it out-dated, the report says.