Japan has launched Earth observation, communications and weather satellites as well as other space vehicles since it began its space program in the late 1960s.

The program initially fell under the authority of the National Space Development Agency but is now under NASDA’s successor, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA.

Last year, U.S. space shuttles brought components of Japan’s Kibo (Hope) space lab to be attached to the International Space Station.

Koichi Wakata has been aboard the ISS since March, becoming the first Japanese astronaut to live in space for an extended period.

JAXA has six other astronauts, including two women, and two candidates who were selected in February and started training in April.

Despite the recession, the government budgeted ¥344.8 billion for space exploration in fiscal 2009, an increase of 10.4 percent from the previous year. Despite such ambitious outlays, Japan lags behind other nations in space.

Following are questions and answers regarding Japan’s space endeavors:

How did Japan come to participate in the ISS and what is Kibo?

Japan signed a treaty to join the ISS project in 1985, a year after President Ronald Reagan announced that the U.S. would develop a manned space station in 10 years and invited the international community to participate. Construction of the ISS began in 1998 and is scheduled for completion next year.

Orbiting some 400 km above Earth, the space station is an international effort joined by 15 countries, including the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and 11 European nations.

Participating nations developed the various ISS components and are individually responsible for operating them. The first Kibo component was attached in 2008.

Astronauts Takao Doi and Akihiko Hoshide went on separate shuttle missions to the ISS to help assemble and attach Kibo’s sections.

The next shuttle launch, slated for July 11, will carry Kibo’s final components to complete the installment. Wakata will attach them to the ISS before he returns to Earth.

Kibo has several facilities, including two for experiments. The Pressurized Module, 11.2 meters in length and 4.4 meters in diameter, contains lower-atmosphere air of similar composition and pressure to Earth’s to enable astronauts to work in a comfortable environment. The Exposed Facility is, as its name implies, an area exposed to space. There is also a staging area for long-term experiments in open space.

JAXA, in partnership with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., is also developing the H-IIB launch vehicle, which will bring supplies to the ISS. The first test launch is scheduled for later this year.

Japan’s participation in the ISS has boosted the nation’s aerospace development technology, JAXA says.

What experiments are conducted in Kibo?

One key experiment entails astronomical and environmental observations of Earth and other celestial bodies, according to JAXA.

Other experiments include producing larger and more uniform-size protein crystals, which JAXA believes will shed light on disease mechanisms and lead to development of new medicines. Studies on the influence of microgravity and radiation on plants, animals and humans, in addition to experiments in robotics, communications and energy, are also scheduled.

How do Japan’s space endeavors stack up against those of other countries?

Observers agree the U.S. leads in space research and manned missions, followed by Russia and China. Japan is in the next group, competing with European countries, Canada and India. Japan in 1970 became the first Asian nation to successfully launch a satellite. Since then, the program has focused on pursuing space science.

Why does Japan lag behind its rivals?

According to Keio University professor Setsuko Aoki, who specializes in space law, Japan has maintained a tight, nonmilitary interpretation of its use of space.

Aoki points out that when NASDA was established in 1969, the Diet enacted a resolution that the country would use space for peaceful purposes only.

The basic restrictions on other countries’ space programs were mainly that they be “nonaggressive” in nature, as was endorsed by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. This allows military use of space within the boundaries of the right of defense, Aoki said.

Because “space activities are characterized by their dual civilian-military nature, restricting the development and use of space to the ‘nonmilitary’ realm was impossible,” Aoki wrote in a 2008 commentary for the Association of Japanese Institutes of Strategic Studies.

Aoki argues that the 1990 Japan-U.S. Satellite Procurement Agreement has also been a disadvantage because the agreement obliged Japan to open its nonresearch-and-development satellite procurements to foreign satellite markets. Domestic businesses were thus excluded from developing satellites for defense, effectively shutting them out of the market.

What is the significance of recent space legislation?

Although active in space-related research and development for decades, Japan had no comprehensive space policy until May 2008, when the Diet enacted the Basic Space Law to define the direction and goal of the country’s space exploration.

The law created the top-down Strategic Headquarters for Space Policy, headed by the prime minister. Until then, several ministries had been in charge of different developmental activities related to space.

The basic space law also “changed the interpretation of ‘peaceful purposes’ from ‘nonmilitary’ to ‘nonaggressive’ to clear the way for a space program that could both comply with international law and the Constitution,” Aoki said.

The strategic space headquarters on June 2 approved the Basic Space Plan, the first national strategy on space exploration. The 2009-2013 agenda centers on developing space-related industries to become more competitive on the international market. It also clarifies space activities that contribute to national security while promoting diplomacy.

Planetary exploration projects are also planned.

The main focus will be on the moon, with planetary exploration activities beyond that. The plan involves using robots, including humanoid robots, to operate unmanned probes.

Observers expect Japan’s space efforts to branch out from basic research and development to commercial activities.

However, some experts warn that allowing the wider use of space by the Self-Defense Forces for security purposes, including satellites capable of detecting a ballistic missile launch, may only intensify tensions in Northeast Asia.

What other international space cooperation activities does Japan participate in?

JAXA recently began a three-year joint program with India, Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea, Vietnam and Malaysia to develop a satellite for observing the Asia-Pacific region. The Satellite Technology for the Asia-Pacific Region Program will research observation needs while developing a satellite that JAXA hopes to launch by around 2012.

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