Japan eyes ‘Asia’s hub in space business’ with more spaceports

SEOUL, South Korea — Japan’s government says it will build more spaceports in an effort to make the country “Asia’s hub in space business.”

This was one of the space-related initiatives endorsed June 18 during an economic growth strategy meeting hosted by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at his office in Tokyo, with Cabinet members attending. Other endorsed initiatives included the development of small satellite constellations through public-private collaboration, space-based solar power and future space transportation systems.

“We will flesh out the specifics of these policies presented today in the future budget formulation and system reforms to realize the policies in a swift manner,” said the prime minister.

The initiatives were drawn based on the 4th Basic Plan on Space Policy, released in June 2020 by the National Space Policy Secretariat, in which building more spaceports was labelled as one of the major programs to expand Japan’s space utilization and boost its economy. There are two spaceports operating in Japan — Tanegashima Space Center and Uchinoura Space Center.

The decision was made only days after Japan’s parliament approved legislation that allows companies to extract and utilize space resources, a clear signal that Japan is making concerted efforts to position space as a new driver of economic growth.

“Space is still considered to be a niche industry [in Japan]. [For space] to be listed in the nation’s growth strategy is a big step forward for the space industry,” said Masayasu Ishida, co-founder and CEO of SPACETIDE Foundation, a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization promoting space businesses, and a member of the Japanese government’s Committee on National Space Policy. Ishida said the spaceport initiative is a concrete step Japan takes to become “Asia’s hub in space business.”

Japan’s space industry is estimated at 1.2 trillion yen ($10.84 billion) annually, with the government trying to double the size by the early 2030s, according to Japanese newspaper Asahi.

A 38-page post-meeting document stipulates a set of space development initiatives that the Japanese government will push forward:

  • Building constellations of small satellites through procurement deals open to Japanese companies
  • Demonstration of next-generation space technologies such as on-orbit computing and optical communications
  • Launching the Quasi-Zenith satellite system and Earth observation satellites to have integrated disaster prevention and management capabilities
  • Establishing a space system to monitor greenhouse gases
  • Responding to social issues with R&D on space-based solar power
  • Participation in the Artemis Program and Mars exploration, with industrial cooperation with the United States in sight, in pursuit of the goal of becoming Asia’s hub in space business including spaceports 
  • Complete the development of H3 rocket and R&D on future space transportation system

With details of the spaceport initiative still up in the air, several private companies and local governments have jumped in a race to build the next one.

Last year, California-based launch service provider Virgin Orbit unveiled a plan to build a spaceport in the compound of Japan’s Oita Airport, from which to launch and land its horizontal take-off launch vehicle carrier aircraft from as early as 2022. To that end, the company formed a partnership with Japanese airline company ANA Holdings, the Space Port Japan Association, and the government of Oita Prefecture. The horizontal launch model that Virgin Orbit uses means that it can much more easily leverage traditional airport infrastructure and processes to set up launch sites.

The municipal government of Taiki, a small town in Hokkaido, joined the race early this year with a plan to build two spaceports on its soil by 2025. To realize the plan, the local government partnered with six private companies, including Sapporo-based gas utility Air Water Hokkaido and space venture Interstellar Technologies. With the project costing about 5 billion yen ($45.2 million), Taiki plans to raise the money largely through donations, including deductible “hometown corporate tax” contributions to pay half the cost, and cover the rest by applying for regional revitalization grants.

In November, a team of Japanese architects made public a futuristic concept for a floating spaceport off the shore in Tokyo Bay, hoping to see in coming years spaceports constructed as part of the urban landscape. 

Meanwhile, the post-meeting document demonstrates how serious Japan is in space development. It describes space as a “critical asset” for Japan’s economic growth, national security and disaster management, putting it side by side with artificial intelligence, supercomputers, semiconductor, quantum technology, nuclear power, high-tech materials and biotechnologies, in which major economies have made significant investment in recent years to sharpen their competitive edge.

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