Eastern promise

For the next generation of space technology, forget the nations usually associated with planetary exploration. The East is about to make its mark and Japan in particular is setting its sights high. Rob Coppinger reports.

While NASA reels from the shock of the Colombia disaster and Europe surveys the smouldering ruins of the last Ariane launch, those keen to see the next big developments in space technology would do well to look east. Not to Russia, whose space programme is collapsing with its economy, but to China, India and above all Japan.

The Japanese have just announced the biggest shake-up in their space programme’s history, showcased some world-beating mini-shuttle technology and caused more than one observer of the global space industry to wonder ‘What on earth are the Japanese up to?’

China and India have ambitious space programmes, with the former likely to send men into space soon and the latter committed to becoming a power in the satellite launch market.

But it is Japan that poses the conundrum. The country’ space programme has long been overshadowed by those of other nations, but there are signs that the sun may at last be rising on a Japanese effort, unhindered by NASA’s increasingly moribund bureaucracy or ESA’s need to juggle the priorities of multiple governments. And it is starting from a strong base. Little heralded and with an annual budget of £1bn – a tenth of NASA’s – Japan is already ahead of the game as the only space power conducting high-altitude tests with its own winged Earth-to-orbit vehicle.

Europe abandoned its Hermes space plane project 10 years ago, Russia’s shuttle Buran flew just once and US efforts in this direction are paralysed by constant budget overruns with existing operations. The Japanese, on the other hand, look well placed to pull it off. As The Engineer went to press, Japan’s National Space Development Agency (NASDA) was due to carry out the first of four drop tests of a 25 per cent scale model of its H2 Orbital Plane-eXperimental (HOPE-X) mini-shuttle from an altitude of 30km. With the drop carried out at Sweden’s Esrange site with a balloon provided by the French space agency CNES, the vehicle will glide back to Earth collecting performance data on its way. The finished mini-shuttle could carry three tonnes of cargo to the International Space Station and would be launched atop Japan’s existing H2A rocket.

The Japanese space programme has worked towards a shuttle-like reusable vehicle since the 1980s, initially one that could carry astronauts but later revised to an unmanned cargo carrier.

To add to the bemusement of those attempting to read the signals from Tokyo, all this progress is being made on a project that is supposed to be on ice, but persists with a budget of £15m for the financial year 2003.

A NASDA spokesman said that while the full project is frozen, development of technology continues for HOPE-X and reusable launch vehicles generally. ‘High-speed flight demonstration experiment vehicles were continued even after the freeze of HOPE-X in order to verify technologies that are necessary for the reusable space transportations system,’ he said.

It is not surprising then that for space experts the Japanese programme is at last showing considerable promise. Brian Harvey, author of the only English-language textbook published on the Japanese space effort, said the nation had achieved ‘notable successes’ by 2000 and built up a ‘strong space industrial infrastructure’. But it is Japan’s recent decision to merge all its space-related agencies into one organisation that could finally see the country emerge as a space superpower.

The new Tokyo-based Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will start work on 1 October – around the same time that China is expected to launch its first manned space mission. The creation of JAXA is the biggest change in the way Japan has organised its space research since NASDA was set up 30 years ago. Headed by the president of NASDA, Shuichiro Yamanouchi, it brings together the National Aerospace Laboratory of Japan and the Tokyo University-based Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS). It combines the rocket launcher expertise of NASDA, the planetary probe know-how of ISAS and the supersonic and hypersonic research of NAL.

For the moment both the budget and the priorities of JAXA remain undeclared. But with such a formidable array of expertise at its disposal, it is likely to set its sights high. Indeed, in a clear sign of its ambitions for the fledgling agency the Japanese government described JAXA as being ‘ranked with US and European space agencies’.

Details are thin on the ground, but a spokesman for NASDA revealed that reusable launch vehicles (RLVs) such as the HOPE-X would be one of the priorities for the new agency. He said: ‘RLVs will become one of the R&D items JAXA will employ in future space activities. But details are not decided yet.’According to Harvey, the restructuring is more likely to be a ‘political, administrative decision, rather than a space/scientific one’. It could, however, give the nation’s space activities a much-needed focus, secure the future of HOPE-X and reinvigorate Japan’s efforts.

Despite the success of HOPE-X, the Japanese space programme is far from a one-trick pony. Other projects that set the nation apart from others are two robotic probe missions. Its Muses-C probe, which will land on an asteroid and bring back a sample to Earth, will be the first return of extraterrestrial material since the Apollo programme. Its other leading robotic project is the Nozomi probe, which will study Mars from orbit and is due to arrive early next year.

And whatever the future of HOPE-X one project that will definitely continue is the development of the H2A transfer vehicle, equivalent to the automated transfer vehicle developed by ESA. This is an expendable cylindrical spacecraft that operates as an unmanned cargo vessel to supply the International Space Station. The HOPE-X unmanned orbiter and the transfer vehicle will both be launched on Japan’s H2A booster. The rocket is one of a fleet the Japanese have developed domestically – launcher development has been central to NASDA’s activities since its creation in June 1969.

A brief glance at the history of the Japanese rocket programme provides some clues as to why the nation has spent so long as a little-regarded member of the global space club. For many years it relied on US technology, and later, on several occasions, was plagued by serious setbacks when it began using home-developed systems.

NASDA’s first rocket was the N1, which from 1970 used US Thor-Delta rocket technology to launch experiments, communications, broadcasting, meteorological and Earth observation satellites. The N1 was kept on until 1982, followed by the N2, also based on US technology. That stayed in service until 1987, when it was replaced by the H1, marking the beginning of the end of Japan’s relatively smooth ride due to an increasing reliance on its own technology.

The H rocket had begun development in 1981 and had its first launch in 1986. Its first-stage and strap-on boosters were identical to those of the US-inspired N2, but its second and third-stage rocket motor and inertial guidance system were Japanese. In 1991 the H1 ended its life after nine launches. It was to be replaced by the H2, the first to have the capability to launch a two-ton satellite into geo-stationary orbit.

The two-stage rocket was composed entirely of Japanese technology. However, this first all-Japanese craft did not fare well, suffering a number of failures and ending Japan’s hopes of being a major player in the international satellite launch market. The H2’s failure made the 1990s an ignominious era for the Japanese rocket programme, but it now seems to have bounced back.

NASDA’s engineers redesigned the H2 to create the H2A. This was finally successfully launched in August 2001, able to carry 10 tonnes into low Earth orbit (LEO). In many ways it is the equivalent to Europe’s Ariane four.

This long, distinctly patchy history of launcher development has often led to the Japanese space programme being labelled in the UK and US media as far too expensive for what it has achieved. But those that have watched the space programme for many years do not agree. Harvey’s view is that criticism of the Japanese space programme for being an expensive failure is unwarranted.

‘They had some problems with the H2 rocket,’ he said. ‘It was expensive and costs were way over. It would have been twice the price of [ESA’s] Ariane or the [Russian] Proton rocket to launch a satellite. But the reason for this was the Japanese fanatical quality control and the fact that they went after deluxe solutions to problems.’

That level of fanatical devotion to quality has left Japan with a serious home-grown set of space technology. Rockets, mini-shuttles, unmanned space cargo vehicles – you name it, the Japanese have got it.

If the imminent restructuring does indeed herald a new momentum for the Japanese space effort, then the future could be exciting indeed.