Japanese Government Seeks To Reorient Space Spending

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PRAGUE, Czech Republic — The Japanese government wants to promote more private-sector space development by reorienting its spending away from its research focus and toward commercially oriented programs and crafting a new law to permit commercial launch services, Japanese government and industry officials said Sept. 28.

Addressing the 61st International Astronautical Congress, these officials said the Japanese government’s recent decisions to develop the Epsilon small-satellite launcher and to extend the annual operating window for the heavy-lift H-2A rocket to year-round operations are examples of this new focus. So is the start of development of a 400-kilogram Earth observation satellite

Hiroshi Yamakawa, secretary-general of Japan’s Strategic Headquarters for Space Policy, created two years ago to streamline Japan’s government space bureaucracy, said the government is determined to create a more entrepreneurial space culture in Japan.

The next step in the process, he said, is a Space Activities Law, now being debated in the government, that among other things would provide third-party-liability coverage for launch vehicles developed outside the normal channels of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA.

The Japanese space budget totals about $4 billion per year, with two-thirds of the budget coming from the Ministry of Science and Technology and directed toward JAXA, and the remaining one-third coming from eight other government ministries. Yamakawa said his office, headed by the minister for space policy, was created in part to bring more coherence to Japan’s space spending.

Japan has developed rocket and satellite technologies that, until recently, were not aggressively sold on export markets. Yamakawa said that is changing as the government sees the space industry as a vector for technology development and for international technology cooperation.

Shoichira Asada, general manager for space systems at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, said the government’s policy move is a recognition that Japan’s space sector, developed with heavy government investment over 20 years, cannot survive without export revenue.

“Only in the United States is domestic demand enough to get a satisfactory return on investment,” Asada said, referring to the space sector in general and the launch services business in particular. He suggested that while it might be “premature” to embark on a policy of moving astronaut launches to the commercial sector, a commercial industry needs to be developed on a sustainable basis. That means looking outside Japan for business.

Launch vehicles the world over benefit from the guarantees of their home governments that, beyond a certain sum, the government will step in to cover launches if a vehicle injures people or causes major property damage. The Space Activities Law being reviewed by the government would extend that coverage, known as indemnification, to commercially developed rockets.

Japan’s first positioning, timing and navigation satellite, called the Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS) and Michibiki in Japan, was successfully launched Sept. 11 and is expected to spend the next few months in tests.

Given the highly elliptical orbit, designed so that the satellite appears to hover over Japanese territory, the system is not operational — meaning capable of offering permanent coverage of Japan — without three satellites. But with the first spacecraft costing some $700 million, Yamakawa said, the government remains unsure of whether to proceed with the other two.

An earlier effort to engage private-sector investment was scrapped when no companies agreed to assume the project’s risks.

Yamakawa said the second and third satellites likely would cost half as much as the first model now that the nonrecurring engineering development is completed. He said a decision is needed by August 2011 given Japan’s government budget cycle and the fact that the first satellite has a planned service life of 10 years.

“What we hope to do is use the launch of QZSS-1 to show government agencies the benefits of the system,” Yamakawa said. “The second problem we have is to reduce the cost of the satellite, perhaps with a smaller model. It’s too expensive as it is now.”