Two men hold up a document representing the space domain awareness agreement signed by IHI Corp. and Northrop Grumman.
IHI vice president Fumiharu Namiki, second from left, shakes hands with Northrop Grumman vice president Troy Brashear March 15, holding a signed MOU on jointly developing “small, highly maneuverable satellites and other solutions” that will help bolster Japan’s space domain awareness capabilities. Standing far left is Manabu Mannam, a director general of Japan’s defense ministry, and far right is U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel. Credit: Northrop Grumman

SEOUL, South Korea — Northrop Grumman and Japanese heavy-industry manufacturer IHI Corporation have signed a memorandum of understanding March 15 to develop “small, highly maneuverable satellites and other solutions” that will help bolster Japan’s space domain awareness capabilities, particularly for geosynchronous orbit. 

The two companies said their collaboration was to achieve Japan’s goal of reinforcing its space domain awareness capabilities and related infrastructure, which is stipulated in Japan’s National Defense Strategy, released Dec. 16, 2022. “In order to respond to threats to the stable use of space, MOD/SDF will develop ground and space-based surveillance capabilities, build-up a Space Domain Awareness (SDA) structure, and bolster the resiliency of our space assets to enable the continuation of missions in response to various situations,” reads the strategy. MOD and SDF refer to Japan’s Ministry of Defense and Self-Defense Forces, respectively.

The signing ceremony for the deal, held on the sidelines of a local defense and security trade show called DSEI Japan, was attended by a director general of Japan’s defense ministry, and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel. While much of the information about the satellites and solutions the companies will jointly develop remains undisclosed, IHI said in a March 15 statement the satellites will “utilize existing Northrop Grumman satellite buses.” According to Nikkei Asia, the jointly developed satellites will be able to approach suspicious satellites, take images and send the images to the ground for analysis.

“While some satellites move in GEO in a friendly manner, there are also more satellites that move around suspiciously,” IHI said in the statement. “For this reason, Japan’s National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy of December 2022 call for strengthening SDA and stipulate the need for SDA satellites, both from the perspective of ensuring sustainable economic activity as well as national security.”

IHI vice president Fumiharu Namiki expressed worries about “a rise in military surveillance efforts from other countries, which is becoming a national security threat.” He noted that efforts are needed to “characterize suspicious satellites to understand the threat.”

Northrop Grumman vice president Troy Brashear welcomed the deal, saying the pair will “rapidly work together towards an affordable and effective SDA solution for Japan.

Reinforcing space defense capabilities 

The Northrop-IHI deal is the latest in a series of efforts Japan has made to reinforce its space defense capabilities. In January, Japan launched a classified radar reconnaissance satellite into a sun-synchronous orbit aboard the nation’s workhorse, H2A. The satellite, named IGS Radar-7, is tasked to monitor North Korea’s military activities. On top of this, the nation’s Air Self-Defense Force is moving to add space to its operational domain

The United States is a key supporter of Japan’s endeavor to bolster space defense capabilities. The two countries have worked together on a range of space security issues. In January, the two nations agreed to strengthen cooperation on space capabilities, in which Washington decided to extend its security umbrella into outer space to protect Japanese satellites. In December 2020, the U.S. Space Force and Japan’s Office of National Space Policy agreed to launch two U.S. space sensor payloads for space domain awareness on Japan’s Quasi-Zenith Satellite System, a constellation used for regional navigation. The first of two sensors were delivered to Japan in January. The first sensor will fly on QZS-6 and the second on QZS-7, currently projected to launch in 2023 and 2024, respectively.

Park Si-soo covers space industries in South Korea, Japan and other Asian countries. Park worked at The Korea Times — South Korea's leading English language newspaper — from 2007 to 2020. He earned a master’s degree in science journalism from Korea...