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Japanese Space Development Can Benefit the World Keiji Tachikawa President, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

2011 began for JAXA with the successful launch of KOUNOTORI 2, a cargo transport vehicle that delivered supplies to the International Space Station. In the spring, astronaut Satoshi Furukawa is set to start a long-duration space mission on the ISS. The Global Change Observation Mission - Water 1 (GCOM-W1) satellite is also scheduled for launch this year. To sustain the cutting-edge technology and motivation of Japanese aerospace manufacturers, I believe that it is important to conduct our space development program systematically and continuously.

Attracting International Attention in 2010

Q. Could you tell us about JAXA projects that earned high recognition inside and outside Japan in 2010?

Astronauts Soichi Noguchi (left) and Naoko Yamazaki (right) on the ISS (courtesy: NASA)
Astronauts Soichi Noguchi (left) and Naoko Yamazaki (right) on the ISS (courtesy: NASA)

There were various events last year, but the most memorable was the return of the asteroid explorer HAYABUSA. Particles brought back by HAYABUSA were confirmed to be from the asteroid Itokawa, and this became big news. These particles will be studied around the world, so I hope that the public will continue to follow the story and look forward to the revelations. The public exhibition of the sample return capsule has also been successful. If you have a chance to see it, please don’t miss the opportunity.
Other accomplishments include the Small Solar Power Sail Demonstrator IKAROS successfully demonstrating acceleration by solar radiation pressure - a world first. I believe that this is a step towards future exploration beyond our solar system. In addition, the first Quasi-Zenith Satellite MICHIBIKI, which was launched last September, is operating smoothly. If it can demonstrate and verify accurate positioning, Japan will be able to develop its own advanced satellite positioning system.
In addition, astronaut Soichi Noguchi completed a five-and-a-half-month stay in space, setting a record for the longest space mission by a Japanese astronaut. During his mission, astronaut Naoko Yamazaki flew on the space shuttle, which was another first: two Japanese astronauts in space at the same time. These are just a few of many accomplishments of the Japanese space program last year. 2010 was a year when space exploration got high marks in Japan, and when Japanese space missions attracted a lot of international attention.

Return of HAYABUSA Made History

Q. HAYABUSA’s achievements really captured public attention. What is your view of this phenomenon? And what kind of acclaim has the success of HAYABUSA brought to JAXA?

HAYABUSA sample capsule after its return to Earth
HAYABUSA sample capsule after its return to Earth
JAXA’s successful exhibition on the HAYABUSA expedition, featuring the sample return capsule
JAXA’s successful exhibition on the HAYABUSA expedition, featuring the sample return capsule

The whole nation was moved, and got very enthusiastic about JAXA’s achievement. It was a first in the history of the Japanese space program. According to a survey from around 2005, less than 10 percent of respondents were able to name the organization responsible for Japanese space development. So I appreciate that HAYABUSA’s return to Earth has made JAXA more widely known.
I was watching HAYABUSA’s reentry in the control room at JAXA, and frankly speaking, I was thinking again that there was a 50/50 chance of success. I had experienced the feeling of "it’s all over" so many times before: once a satellite or unmanned spacecraft has trouble in space, the operation becomes very difficult to continue, as the spacecraft is out of our reach. That’s why I admire HAYABUSA’s perseverance all the more.
It is really remarkable that the sample return capsule was retrieved, and even more so that it actually contained samples brought back from the asteroid Itokawa. By bringing back material from a body beyond the Moon, JAXA has achieved a first in human history. The particles brought back from Itokawa are around 10 micrometers in diameter. You might think this is very small, but for experts in nano-sized materials, it is 100 to 1,000 times bigger than what they usually deal with in their research. The sample analysis by Japanese and international scientists will help us understand the origins of the solar system, and inevitably attract attention both domestically and internationally. I expect that the results of the analysis will start coming out by this spring. If there is a new discovery, Japan will be leading the world in the field of science, too.
Furthermore, the success of the HAYABUSA sample return capsule has proven that Japan has obtained re-entry technology. I think this will be a key element of the HTV with Return Vehicle (HTV-R), which is currently in the planning stage. HTV-R is an upgraded version of the current cargo transport vehicle to the ISS, KOUNOTORI (HTV). It is an unmanned spacecraft that will enable retrieval of materials from the ISS.

Reaching for the Moon and Other Planets

Q. The Small Solar Power Sail Demonstrator IKAROS is also a world first. Will JAXA continue to attempt such adventurous missions in the future?

IKAROS succeeded in deploying a solar sail in outer space
IKAROS succeeded in deploying a solar sail in outer space

I think that the success of the IKAROS mission has gained a foothold for going beyond Jupiter. Japan has only been able to send probes to celestial bodies relatively close to the Earth. This is because our probes rely on solar panels to generate energy. To reach a planet beyond Jupiter, far from the Sun, it is crucial to be able to obtain continuous energy and acceleration without depending on solar panels. The United States and Russia use atomic batteries for their probes that travel to distant planets, such as Jupiter and Saturn. But in Japan we choose not to use atomic power for safety reasons. Therefore, we need new technology to send spacecraft to distant planets.
We have high hopes for acceleration technology using solar photons, and power generation using a solar power sail, both of which were verified by IKAROS, and for hybrid propulsion, combined with ion engines, which were verified by HAYABUSA. I think the private sector will look for commercial opportunities for this technology relatively close to Earth, so JAXA will focus on adventurous missions to more distant bodies, and on space science.

Q. What is your vision for JAXA’s future lunar and planetary missions?

Asteroid explorer HAYABUSA 2 (courtesy: Akihiro Ikeshita)
Asteroid explorer HAYABUSA 2 (courtesy: Akihiro Ikeshita)

Last December, the Venus Climate Orbiter AKATSUKI failed to insert itself into Venus orbit. I am deeply regretful to those who had supported the mission. It was really a pity, especially because the failure happened while there was a very positive mood in the country towards space exploration thanks to HAYABUSA, which was lucky enough to be able to come back after facing great difficulties. To improve the chances of success, we make sure to design spacecraft that are able to recover even in the face of some trouble.
Of course, we always aim for a 100 percent success rate, but there is no such guarantee in space development, and we are never free from risk. So a spacecraft’s ability to recover from trouble is key to increasing the chances of success. HAYABUSA is a good example from this point of view. I think JAXA is getting better at concentrating its wisdom when facing trouble and successfully completing missions by any means necessary. It’s not like there is zero opportunity for AKATSUKI to enter Venus orbit later. Please have hope for its recovery.
JAXA is also working on other lunar and planetary missions. For example, we are jointly developing the Mercury Exploration Mission BepiColombo with the European Space Agency, aiming for launch in 2014. HAYABUSA 2 is being planned, too. Its objective is to return samples from a different type of asteroid than Itokawa. By comparing the samples to the ones already retrieved by HAYABUSA, we will try to find out more about the origins of the solar system. And the moon lander SELENE-2 will study the lunar surface using a rover. We are looking at landing the spacecraft on the Moon in 2015.

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