ispace lander
Japan's ispace plans to launch its first two missions, including its first lander, as secondary payloads on SpaceX launches in mid-2020 and mid-2021. Credit: ispace

WASHINGTON — The Japanese government plans to join NASA in its Artemis program of lunar exploration, although the details about how it will contribute remain to be worked out.

In an Oct. 18 statement posted on Twitter, the office of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe said that his government’s Strategic Headquarters for National Space Policy had decided the country would join NASA in its plans to return humans to the moon, one that could lead to Japanese astronauts one day setting foot there.

“At long last, Japan too will turn over a new page leading to lunar and space exploration,” Abe said in an English-language statement. “Today, we decided on a policy of participating in the U.S.’s challenging new venture, as an ally connected to the U.S. by strong bonds.”

In a separate Japanese-language document, the government outline several reasons for participating in the NASA-led effort, including diplomacy and security, international competitiveness, commercial opportunities and support for later missions to Mars.

“The program aims at maintaining a space station orbiting the moon, manned exploration of the lunar surface, and other undertakings, and Mars and other destinations are also in our sights,” Abe’s office said.

The Japanese statement said Japan would work with NASA and other partners to coordinate its participation in several ways. That includes offering technologies that could support the early lunar Gateway, providing logistics services with its next-generation HTV-X cargo vehicle, sharing data used for the selection of lunar landing sites and other lunar transportation services.

The statement didn’t explicitly state whether Japan was still interested in contributing elements to the lunar Gateway. In previous statements by the Multilateral Coordination Board, which oversees issues regarding the International Space Station, the Japanese space agency JAXA proposed “habitation functions” for the Gateway’s second phase, after the initial return to the lunar surface in 2024.

Japan becomes the second major spacefaring nation to announce its intent to cooperate on Artemis. In February, Canada announced it would develop a robotic arm for the Gateway, spending about $1.5 billion over the next 24 years.

Both countries are partners on the ISS, which is governed by an intergovernmental agreement, or IGA. That agreement, or something like it, is likely to be the basis for formalizing cooperation among those countries that also plan to participate in Artemis.

“We’re not going to do anything new. We’re going to use that same system as we move forward,” Sumara Thompson-King, NASA’s general counsel, said during a panel discussion at a University of Nebraska College of Law space law conference here Oct. 18. “We’re going to build upon the collaboration and coordination that we have already been engaged to get the space station operational.”

The announcement also comes just before the 70th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) that starts here Oct. 21. The potential roles for both traditional partners, like those involved in the ISS, as well as emerging space nations is likely to be a major subject of discussion during the conference.

The agreement could also open new opportunities for Japanese companies to participate in lunar exploration. Among those companies is ispace, which is developing commercial lunar landers and is also partnered with a U.S.-based entity, Draper, to offer similar services to NASA through the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.

“We welcome this development with great optimism for the future of lunar exploration, as well as the relationship between Japan and the United States,” Takeshi Hakamada, chief executive of ispace, said in a statement to SpaceNews. “We firmly believe the Draper-ispace partnership can complement the U.S.-Japan efforts for a sustainable return to the Moon at the commercial level.”

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...