JAXA Toyota rover
JAXA envisions its contributions to the Artemis program could eventually include a pressurized lunar rover for astronauts, a concept JAXA is currently studying in cooperation with Toyota. Credit: JAXA

WASHINGTON — The Japanese space agency JAXA hopes to have an agreement in place outlining its contributions to NASA’s lunar exploration efforts in the next few months.

In a Jan. 24 presentation at the Washington office of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Yoshikazu Shoji, director of the international relations and research department at JAXA, said his agency was negotiating a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with NASA about its contributions to the lunar Gateway.

“We are targeting concluding this MOU in the April/May timeframe,” he said. “So we will, maybe very soon, have an agreement between the U.S. and Japan.”

The Japanese government announced in October its intent to join the NASA-led Artemis program in a statement by the country’s prime minister, Shinzō Abe. That announcement provided few details about how Japan would participate, beyond outlining a few potential areas of contribution. That announcement came a month after a visit to Japan by NASA Administration Jim Bridenstine, who signed a joint statement with JAXA about potential cooperation in lunar exploration.

Shoji said JAXA was interested in four specific areas. One is to provide components for the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) module, one of the first for the lunar Gateway. NASA announced last summer its intent to award a sole-source contract to Northrop Grumman to build HALO, and Shoji said JAXA could supply components such as batteries and tanks.

A second area, he said, is to provide data on the lunar surface. JAXA is developing a mission called Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) intended to demonstrate the ability to perform precision landings. SLIM is scheduled to launch in late 2021 or early 2022.

A third area of interest by JAXA is providing logistical support for the Gateway. Shoji said that could be done with the HTV-X spacecraft, an updated version of the HTV cargo spacecraft that currently supports the International Space Station, launched on the H3 rocket. That rocket is scheduled to make its first flight later this year.

The final, and most ambitious area, of interest by JAXA involves both Gateway and surface elements. JAXA is considering developing a habitation module for the Gateway as well as a pressurized rover for use by astronauts on the lunar surface. JAXA announced last year a partnership with automotive company Toyota to study development of the rover, an agreement Shoji described as the “biggest and most symbolic” of several industry partnerships JAXA is pursuing.

A habitation module like what JAXA has proposed likely would not be added to the Gateway until the latter half of the decade, when NASA expands the facility to enable more sustainable lunar missions. The rover, Shoji said, would not be ready until 2029 or 2030.

In exchange for those contributions to Artemis, JAXA would likely get the ability to fly its astronauts on later missions, including lunar landings. “We would like to send some Japanese astronauts to the lunar surface,” he said. “It will be negotiated between the two governments.”

One challenge facing JAXA as it contemplates its role in Artemis is its budgets. JAXA’s budget for the 2020 fiscal year, which starts April 1, is 188.8 billion yen ($1.73 billion), an increase of 2.2% over 2019. JAXA’s budget, though has been relatively flat over the last several years, Shoji noted.

Whatever the terms of the final agreement and whatever financial resources JAXA is able to secure, Shoji emphasized Japan’s desire to cooperate with the United States in lunar exploration. “Japan has a strong motivation to explore new frontiers by using our core competencies, and strengthen the cooperation between the United States and Japan,” he said.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...