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A rocket launch by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Photo: AP

China’s space breakthroughs put a rocket under Japan

  • With ‘techno-nationalism’ fuelling a new space race, Japan has passed a new law allowing its companies to collect resources from the moon, asteroids or other celestial bodies
  • Tokyo is driven not only by a desire to compete with China, but by an increasing realisation of the commercial potential of space, experts say
A new Japanese law permits private companies to claim ownership of resources from outer space, the latest development in an international space race fuelled as much by national pride as the growing need to harvest resources from beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

The new legislation coincides with increased interest and investment in space ventures by both private companies and the government-funded Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), which in July completed the first test in space of a next-generation rocket engine with sufficient thrust to theoretically enable spacecraft to reach speeds of Mach 6, more than 3,800mph (6,110km/h).

With broad cross-party support, the Diet in June passed the law, allowing Japanese companies to collect resources from the moon, asteroids or other celestial bodies. Japan is the fourth country to pass such legislation, after the United States in 2015 and then Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates.

The Japanese government is eager to encourage investment in space technology and exploration as the sector becomes a new frontier for international competition. For Japan, which works closely with Nasa of the US, China is the most significant competitor.

“A number of Japanese companies are already making plans to extract resources from outer space, such as Ispace, which is trying to confirm the presence of water as ice at the south pole of the moon,” said Kazuto Suzuki, a professor of science and technology policy at Tokyo University.


How China’s space programme went from launching satellites to building its own space station

How China’s space programme went from launching satellites to building its own space station

“The new law now regulates the activities of these companies, with the government keen to confirm companies’ legal ownership of the resources they are able to recover.”

The moon is the obvious location for a first permanently manned colony in space. Construction and operation of any such facility would be made far easier if resources, such as water, can be located on the moon instead of being transported from Earth.

There are a number of reasons why Japan is aiming to be in the vanguard of the space race.

“Japan wants to be regarded as an advanced industrial state and having a space exploration programme is a part of that,” Suzuki said. “But there is also a realisation that there is vast potential to use space for commercial purposes, so new technological capabilities need to be developed to capitalise on this potential and to build the nation’s industry.

“China has similar ambitions to those of Japan and has already shown that it has the ability to extract resources from the moon and return samples to Earth. So Beijing has clearly demonstrated its intent in this area and, although it is a relative latecomer to the sector, is catching up fast.”

Amid rivalry with China, Japan is aiming for the moon

After giving the US a decades-long head start, China is now investing heavily in space exploration.

“China wants to be recognised as a full-capacity superpower and having a presence in outer space is an important part of that,” Suzuki said. “A country can’t be a superpower if it is not in space.

“So there is national pride at stake here, and a desire to show the world that it has its own, independent technological abilities.”

Lance Gatling, a security and aerospace analyst and founder of Tokyo-based Gatling Associates, said Japan was equally motivated.

“There is a lot of techno-nationalism involved,” he said. “Japan was the first country in Asia to have a space programme and it has done well technologically, but it’s a very costly proposition for Japan to develop, build and launch rockets compared to China, which can do the same thing far more cheaply.

“So we have this competition based on technology and nationalism between the two countries, with Japan aiming to double its space activity in the coming years, even if much of that will be down to private companies.”

Communications company Sky Perfect JSAT has announced plans to “declutter” space, reducing the likelihood of a scrap of man-made junk crippling a critical satellite or even the International Space Station by deploying a satellite armed with a high-powered laser. Spacecraft developer PD AeroSpace has teamed up with All Nippon Airways and domestic travel giant HIS to develop the first spaceport in Okinawa prefecture to launch space tourism.


Chinese astronauts aboard Tianhe space module conduct clean-up in zero gravity

Chinese astronauts aboard Tianhe space module conduct clean-up in zero gravity

JAXA is also playing its part and is making progress with Ikaros, the world’s most advanced space sail. The craft gathers sunlight to act as a propellant by unfurling a polyimide resin membrane that resembles the sail of a ship. Ikaros gathers additional electricity from a thin film of solar cells on the membrane, powering the craft’s ion-propulsion engines.

More recently, JAXA announced the successful testing of a rotating detonation engine. Researchers in other countries – including the US military – have been working on the propulsion system, first conceived in the 1950s but considered unfeasible for many years.

A rotating detonation engine incorporates two cylinders, one inside the other, with a gap between the two and a series of holes through which a fuel mixture is forced. Upon ignition, a detonation in the gap between the cylinders releases gases that are pushed through a channel from the open end of the cylinders to produce thrust.

High-end tourists from China targeted as Japan’s ‘space port’ prepares for lift-off

The detonation also creates a shock wave that travels around the channel at five times the speed of sound. The shock wave ignites additional detonations which, if fuelled at precisely the right place and time, create a rotating and self-sustaining pattern.

A rocket carrying the engine was launched from Japan’s Uchinoura Space Centre in July, with a brief, six-second test carried out. The engine was later recovered from the Pacific Ocean.

As well as achieving remarkable speeds due to the thrust, the engine requires around 25 per cent less fuel than a conventional rocket engine. This significantly reduces the weight of a spacecraft, a major factor in travelling in space.

In a statement, JAXA said: “The detonation engine will be put into practical use for deep space exploration missions, which will be useful for space science research.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Space resources law highlights rivalries