Japan has emerged in recent decades as a leading space-faring country. A world-renowned high-tech pioneer, the nation has relied on its skills in key areas such as robotics to label its position among elite space-faring countries.
Notably, unlike other major players such as the U.S., China, and Russia, Japan has retained its position by keeping within the limits of what comprises “peaceful outer space usage” under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST). Initially, Japan had three institutions that handled aerospace activities— the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, the National Space Development Agency, and Japan’s National Aerospace Laboratory. Nevertheless, the unification in 2003 of the three organizations that created the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) was a milestone moment in the rise of the country as a major space agency.
In the early years following its loss throughout World War II, space research in Japan operated under tight restrictions. Under the provisions of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Cooperation and Security Treaty, the government was prevented from improving aircraft and aerospace technology. These limitations stopped Japan from pushing ahead with the production of innovative space technology, although it was the fourth nation to successfully launch a satellite into orbit after the United States, Soviet Union and France.
Those restrictions were loosened in 1969 with the U.S. and Japan signing an agreement to transfer unclassified launch vehicle technology, although not entirely. Japan was still not allowed to pass the product to a third party, thereby hindering marketing prospects. Dependence on technologies licensed from American firms continued until 1994 when the development of the H-II rocket resulted in a collaborative effort involving NASDA and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. (MHI). The H-II range of missiles, the H-IIA and eventually the H-IIB, also developed gradually in terms of ease of manufacturing, durability and cost-effectiveness. At JAXA and MHI engineers are currently developing the more efficient H3 rocket which is supposed to be operational in the near future.
To emerge as a key space-faring nation, Japan has relied heavily on its niche strength in robotics. It became the first country to send Kirobo, a robotic astronaut, to the International Space Station (ISS), in 2013. On receiving verbal instructions from astronaut Koichi Wakata Kirobo successfully demonstrated his ability to perform tasks.
Launched in 2003, the Hayabusa project joined the history books as the first attempt to bring asteroid dust to earth. The sequel, Hayabusa-2, has been celebrated as a bigger success already. The spacecraft, launched in December 2014, carried out over one-and-a-half years of detailed analysis of the carbonaceous Ryugu asteroid, studying parameters such as mineral composition and thermal inertia. Most notably, it earned the honour of becoming the first spacecraft to obtain surface and subsurface samples from an asteroid. The scientific world anxiously awaits Hayabusa-2’s return in 2020.
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