[The following guest post is courtesy of Peter J. Brown.]

JAXA's Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan

JAXA's Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan (Source: Spaceports)

The best and brightest of the Japanese space sector are assembling this week at the Okinawa Convention Center for the 28th International Symposium on Space Technology and Science. Japanese space and satellite experts are joined there by many experts from other nations as well. Among others, a few experts from China and Iran are listed on the final program, too.

The Japanese space sector as a whole is coming to an important crossroads. The announcement in March that Turksat – Turkey’s national satellite operator – is purchasing two Japanese-built communications satellites is a very welcome and upbeat development. This was soon followed by news in early June that steps are being taken by the dominant Japanese satellite manufacturer, Mitsubishi Electric Corporation, to increase its satellite production capabilities via an expansion of its satellite manufacturing facility in Kamakura.

At the same time, the impact of Japan’s recently updated and revised national space law should start to slowly register during this decade. Japanese space-based ISR platforms including vital replacements for Japanese mission-crippled and otherwise defunct radar satellites should start to appear next year. Eyes in the sky are really not in short supply, but Japan wants its own day/night, all-weather eyes up there rather than relying on others to provide intelligence data in a timely manner.

Indeed, the radar satellite gap that Japan has encountered should be viewed as a kind of wake up call in general. Japan has not been struggling to justify the expense and complexity of large, standalone spy satellites in the same way that the debate now underway in U.S. intelligence circles has unfolded. Still, Japan seems slow to embrace and deploy pairs and small formations of more compact and less expensive satellites at a time when such satellites hold great promise.

Mitsubishi ST-2 communications satellite. Mitsubishi Electric is Japan's primary satellite manufacturer.

Mitsubishi ST-2 communications satellite. Mitsubishi Electric is Japan's dominant satellite manufacturer. (Source: Mitsubishi)

Part of the problem facing Japan seems to be the obvious need to further establish its indigenous launch vehicle program. Doing whatever is necessary to bolster the credibility of its large rocket program makes good sense to a degree, and this involves making sure that there are enough large payloads ready to be launched on those launch vehicles. In the process, however, this may be taking its toll on other JAXA programs which offer great promise.

This writer may be guilty of distorting the situation somewhat in this instance. And yet, everyone is aware that many national space programs including NASA, and Europe’s multinational ESA are feeling the same budgetary heat. JAXA is experiencing these fiscal pressures, and these are now amplified by Tokyo’s need to divert substantial Japanese resources to a reformulation and overhaul of Japan’s national energy grid as part of Japan’s plans for reconstruction.

Exciting signs of progress in areas such as space power and propulsion systems, space robotics and in other related technological pursuits where Japan excels are front and center in Okinawa. Japan has certainly demonstrated over the past year or so that its space science missions are world class, and that its space -related research is cutting edge. What to do with all this research and how soon this can happen are questions not easily addressed given Japan’s other priorities.

Japan faces enormous challenges. Mounting regional security concerns focusing on the hostile threats and actions undertaken constantly by North Korea are resulting in a greater emphasis on vital space components both in terms of surveillance and weapons systems including mobile and fixed missile defense assets.

The steady drumbeat of the enormous Chinese space program only grows louder, and the creation of a new Russian launch facility in eastern Siberia combined with the joint Russian – ESA launch activities taking shape in South America are putting Japan on notice that crucial space-related decisions cannot wait. India’s intentions to expand its presence in the enormously complex space commerce bazaar will no doubt impact Japan down the road, and Iran’s space program may prove to be a wild card here as well.

Two Turkish satellites may not be game changers, but in uncertain times, they serve to remind Tokyo that other variables are in play and that all across Asia, the space domain is being carefully measured. This exercise in collective pan-Asian brainstorming over the importance of space might offer Japan unexpected strategic and commercial benefits including new potential partnerships, but only if Japan is ready to move when the time is right.

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Peter J. Brown is a Maine-based freelance writer who specializes in satellite technology. He wrote extensively about the role of satellites in major disasters as a former senior multimedia and homeland security editor at “Via Satellite” magazine. His work on this topic has appeared in “Asia Times Online” as well as “Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness”, a journal of the American Medical Association, among other publications. He has worked on a variety of projects where improvements in emergency communications have been an important goal including the Hospital Incident Command System (HICS) which has been widely implemented throughout the U.S.
Peter J Brown has 6 post(s) on Japan Security Watch