Japan plans unmanned moon missions to compete with China's Jade Rabbit

Tokyo plans unmanned missions to moon in bid to capitalise on China's faltering exploration programme, with first launch possible in 2019

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 July, 2014, 10:54pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 July, 2014, 10:54pm

Japan has unveiled plans to put a series of unmanned spacecraft on the moon.

They will conduct research, recover samples and eventually aim to exploit any resources which are discovered.

There is a strong sense Japan is also looking to capitalise on the failings of China's much-vaunted Jade Rabbit mission.

An official of the science and technology ministry, which oversees Japan's space programmes, said the ministry was working with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

A budget request for the project will be submitted in the next fiscal year. "We are examining the possibilities and 2019 has been tentatively set as the launch date," the official told the South China Morning Post.

"There are many scientific goals for the mission, including attempting to determine the inner structure of the moon, as well as determining the resources that are available there," he said.

"JAXA is also keen to establish a technical platform capable of landing on the moon and then returning to earth that can also be applied to landings on other planets in the future."

Experts believe there are significant amounts of frozen water and iron on the moon, as well as helium-3, which can be used as a fuel for nuclear fusion.

"China was looking for these sorts of resources and others that can be used in nuclear technology," the ministry official said.

"If we can make progress in this area, it will improve Japan's status in the international space race," he added.

In comparison with the Jade Rabbit disappointment, Japan's Hayabusa project has been acclaimed around the world and scientists in Tokyo are working on a follow-up mission.

The seven-year Hayabusa mission succeeded in landing a probe on a 500-metre-long asteroid named Itokawa before gathering microscopic particles of dust from the surface and returning to earth.

When the scorched and dented pod crashed back into the Australian Outback, it inspired a huge outpouring of national pride, a new-found interest in space exploration - and no fewer than three feature films.

There is a feeling that another success in outer space - particularly after China's probe ground to an halt after only its second lunar day - can generate a new sense of pride in Japan's technical and scientific prowess.

"There has always been a space race and there will always be a space race," said Lance Gatling, a Tokyo-based aerospace analyst. "Mankind is always trying to go further, faster, better, but I would say that this is becoming part of the broader soft-power competition unfolding between Japan and China."

Gatling also believes Japan's hi-tech industries will eventually give it an edge as the race heats up between the rivals.

"For Japan, the emphasis for many years has been its contribution to the International Space Station," he said. "That has cost Japan so much and taken up so much time that it has severely hampered unmanned exploration projects."

But now that Japan is able to concentrate more closely on exploratory missions, Gatling believes the advances in areas such as robotics, power plants and miniaturisation of components will stand the Japanese space industry in good stead.