Japan Advances University-led Microsatellite Constellation

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TOKYO — A Japanese government-funded consortium of universities aiming to launch a constellation of scientific microsatellites starting in 2012 is looking for Asian partners to join the program, according to project leaders.

The University International Formation Mission (UNIFORM) project was established in Japan this summer and formally announced in November at the 17th Session of Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum in Melbourne, Australia.

At its core, the UNIFORM project aims to field a functional satellite constellation and ground station network that will yield usable data at a fraction of the price of commercially built satellites. More broadly, project organizers expect UNIFORM to energize Japan’s capacity for building microsatellites and spread that know-how throughout Asia through international cooperation, according to Hiroaki Akiyama, a professor at Wakayama University in western Japan, which is leading the project in conjunction with six other Japanese universities.

“UNIFORM is about microsatellite community building,” Akiyama told Space News Dec. 1. “We will build a closely bonded network of microsatellite technology, microsatellite people, and microsatellite utilization. It is one of our purposes to initiate a paradigm shift in the space business model which only succeeded with stationary satellites in the past. This network has the potential to change the space industry in the near future.”

The UNIFORM consortium aims at initially launching groups of 50-kilogram-class satellites in pairs or clusters in 2012 and 2014 to build a constellation capable of frequent revisits for Earth observation or atmospheric monitoring missions,  Kanenori Ishibashi, a research engineer at the University of Tokyo, said Dec. 1. The university is another leading member of the consortium. The project is still in the planning stage, and organizers are actively hunting partners around the region so that satellite and mission development can begin next summer, he said.

UNIFORM was approved by Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) in October with a budget of 300 million yen ($3.5 million) per year over five years as part of a government effort to bolster Japan’s university-based microsatellite community, said Shigekazu Matsuura, director of the Office of Space Utilization at MEXT, in a Nov. 30 interview.

Following the release of Japan’s Basic Plan for Space Policy in June 2009, the Japanese government has continued to fund microsatellite development by universities, and UNIFORM follows on from a 4.1 billion yen investment by the Cabinet Office in university-based nanosatellite development, which ends in 2013.

Matsuura said MEXT is engaging in a form of “space diplomacy” funding the UNIFORM program’s efforts to build up microsatellite expertise in the Asia-Pacific region.

“[Research and development] of microsatellites is very suitable for fostering young engineers and international diplomacy while increasing our earth observation frequency,” said Matsuura, who takes credit for originating the program.

Announcing the project at the Asia-Pacific space agency forum in Melbourne in November was an important step in gathering partners to define the mission and start building pan-Asian cooperation, Ishibashi said.

“We did have very good responses from about a dozen people/organizations in the Asian-Pacific region,” he said. “This means that now we have a chance to start forming a strong multinational micro/nanosatellite community [in Asia] that is focused not only on the engineering and science aspect but also the practical utilization of data and signals.”

Japan’s university-based microsatellite community dates back more than a decade, with most activities coordinated under the Tokyo-based University Space Engineering Consortium, which comprises 47 laboratories from 38 universities that are steadily building increasingly functional satellites faster and cheaper, Ishibashi said.

Asian-Pacific nations joining UNIFORM will develop their own satellites with Japanese partners on hand to provide required technologies for standardizing satellite equipment.

Ishibashi said participating nations will share with Japan the cost of building the UNIFORM microsatellites, which are expected to cost between 50 million and 200 million yen.