Editorials

Space program: Hopes and fears

A Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying Japanese Astronaut Soichi Noguchi was launched Dec. 21. He is now in the International Space Station some 400 km above Earth working in Japan’s space lab “Kibo” (Hope), which is attached to the ISS. He will stay in space for five months, the longest stretch yet for a Japanese. We wish great success for Mr. Noguchi’s ISS mission, and for two major space-related events that will follow it.

In summer, Japan will launch its first Venus probe, “Akatsuki” (Daybreak), which will orbit Venus and study its atmosphere by observing infrared rays emitted from the planet’s surface. Venus’ atmosphere rotates around the planet at a speed of 100 meters per second, 60 times the planet’s own rotational speed. It is not known how the atmosphere, the main component of which is carbon dioxide, can sustain such rapidity. The surface temperature on the planet tops 400 C.

Also this year, the space probe “Hayabusa” (Falcon), which became the first probe to land on and relaunch from an asteroid, will return to Earth. It was launched in 2003 and landed on the asteroid Itokawa in 2005. It is now heading home despite developing engine trouble and other difficulties since its relaunch from Itokawa. On its mission it collected data on the asteroid’s gravitational pull and the condition of its surface, and may have succeeded in collecting rocks.

Unfortunately, information is not accessible about all aspects of Japan’s space projects. When Japan launched its first reconnaissance satellite in 2003, the government explained that these kinds of devices would be used for non-military purposes such as disaster prevention and detection of natural resources. The latest reconnaissance satellite, equipped with optical sensors, was launched Nov. 28, but none of the images collected by it or Japan’s two other reconnaissance satellites have been made public and no information on their activities is available.

The government should bring transparency to the space program, scrutinize its cost-effectiveness and ensure that it does not contribute to the growth of a military-industrial complex.

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