The Japanese Experiment Module (JEM) “Kibo” on Sept. 2, 2016. Source: JAXA/NASA

The U.S. and China Are Fighting Over Mars, but Japan May Win the Space Race

By Chris CooperChris Cooper and Kiyotaka Matsuda

The U.S. and China are spending billions of headline-grabbing dollars in a tacit race to put humans on Mars. Japan prefers lower-key missions in the opposite direction, sending mechanical explorers toward Venus and Mercury for a fraction of the price.

A $290 million probe orbiting Venus is collecting information about the scorching atmosphere that may foretell Earth’s future. A collaborative mission with Europe will measure Mercury’s magnetic field and electromagnetic waves. Another craft is gliding toward an asteroid to search for water.

Read more about Asia's space race ➝

With a budget less than a 10th the size of NASA’s, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, is more about scientific endeavors with earthly applications than spectacular travels. JAXA-launched satellites track movements in the Earth’s crust that can portend volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, and its astronauts are helping a Tokyo drug developer pursue a cure for cancer.

How the Space Budgets Compare

Current fiscal year

India (ISRO)

$1.09B

Japan (JAXA)

$1.62B

China*

$4.21B

U.S. (NASA)

$19B

*Estimated Chinese space spending for 2015

Source: NASA, JAXA, ISRO, The Space Report 2016

Current fiscal year

India (ISRO)

$1.09B

Japan (JAXA)

$1.62B

China*

$4.21B

U.S. (NASA)

$19B

*Estimated Chinese space spending for 2015

Source: NASA, JAXA, ISRO, The Space Report 2016

Current fiscal year

India (ISRO)

$1.09B

Japan (JAXA)

$1.62B

China*

$4.21B

U.S. (NASA)

$19B

*Estimated Chinese space spending for 2015

Source: NASA, JAXA, ISRO, The Space Report 2016

Current fiscal year

India (ISRO)

$1.09B

Japan (JAXA)

$1.62B

China*

$4.21B

U.S. (NASA)

$19B

*Estimated Chinese space spending for 2015

Source: NASA, JAXA, ISRO, The Space Report 2016

“There’s definitely a ‘Space Race’ going on: Who can get to Mars first?” said agency President Naoki Okumura, who’s led JAXA for three years. “There are lots of debates, but we’re focusing on small-scale experiments and tools that are useful for daily life.”

Japanese astronauts used to fly on U.S. space shuttles, and they’re part of a rotation living aboard the International Space Station, but the nation has no designs to put boots on the ground of the Red Planet.

NASA is working to send people to Mars in the 2030s, while China wants to get an unmanned craft there by 2020 and send “taikonauts” later. In the private sector, Tesla Motors Inc. co-founder Elon Musk targets a Mars mission next decade.

JAXA may cooperate with NASA’s efforts. Meantime, the Japanese agency is working on ways to improve water recycling, a key part of long space journeys.

JAXA is doing a lot with a little. Its budget is 182 billion yen ($1.62 billion) for the year ending March, compared with NASA’s budget of $19 billion this fiscal year.

Japan’s modest government investment is paying dividends for the private sector. Space industry revenue from rockets, satellites and software was 307 billion yen in the year ended March 2015, including government and private spending, according to the Society of Japanese Aerospace Companies. That’s the most since 2002, and Japan wants the annual average to reach 500 billion yen during the next decade.

“The world’s space industry is changing,” said JAXA President Okumura, 71, a former Nippon Steel Corp. executive. “It’s difficult to get a bigger budget, so we have to work with others.”

In this long exposure image Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)’s spacecraft ‘Hayabusa’ reenters Earth’s orbit on June 13, 2010, in Glendambo, Australia. Source: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

NEC Corp., whose space-related business began 60 years ago, and Mitsubishi Electric Corp., which has been in the industry since the 1960s, are Japan’s primary makers of satellites. Tokyo-based NEC built the Kaguya probe that entered lunar orbit in 2007 and the ion engine-propelled Hayabusa vessels studying nearby asteroids.

Hayabusa 1 returned in 2010 with the first samples collected from an extraterrestrial body since the Apollo missions, helping scientists study the composition of a 4 billion-year-old asteroid and its corrosion by solar winds.

The mission “was a stunning technical achievement on a very limited budget,” said Lance Gatling, president of Nexial Research Inc., a Tokyo-based aerospace and defense consultant.

A sister ship launched in 2014 will rendezvous with another asteroid in 2018 and touch down three times for sampling. Hayabusa 2 will study the origin and evolution of the solar system as well as materials for life. NASA, Germany, France and Australia are cooperating.

Another NEC celebrity is Akatsuki, a probe blasted in May 2010 toward Venus, about 40 million kilometers (25 million miles) away. The 500-kilogram (1,100-pound) box, propelled by solar panels resembling giant fly swatters, was supposed to orbit “Earth’s twin sister” that December but instead flew right past it.

An image of Venus taken by the Ultraviolet Imager after Akatsuki was successfully inserted into Venus’ orbit on Dec. 7, 2015. Source: JAXA

Akatsuki’s thrusters were damaged, and JAXA spent five years doing remote repairs and course corrections as the craft circled the sun. Akatsuki finally reached the second planet’s orbit and transmitted infrared images in December 2015. JAXA hopes to elucidate how the atmosphere degenerated from Earthlike to one dominated by carbon dioxide, with an average temperature topping 460 degrees Celsius (860 degrees Fahrenheit).

JAXA’s next destination is even farther away from Mars. The European-led BepiColombo mission will blast off for Mercury in 2018 with two craft: the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, made by NEC, and a European Space Agency orbiter. When it arrives six years later, the JAXA craft will study Mercury’s magnetic field and examine its polar regions for water—a possible sign of life on the planet nearest the sun.

“Japan has developed some groundbreaking scientific and engineering spacecraft,” said Peter Bond, the consultant editor for IHS Jane’s Space Systems & Industry in the U.K. “At a time of budget constraints, I think Japan is achieving a lot.”

Closer to home, Mitsubishi Electric is assembling a constellation of satellites for the Quasi-Zenith regional navigation system. The first one took off in 2010, and three more are scheduled for insertion in the chain next year.

Those pieces will ride atop rockets made by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., a Japanese maker of trains, ships and aircraft. The company made all four JAXA rockets shot into orbit last year, including two for the military and one for the space station, and all three set for this year.

There’s a lot of money to be made in the commercial space business. Global revenue from the sector that includes building and launching spacecraft totaled almost $121 billion last year, with 262 vessels propelled into the sky, according to the Space Foundation.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and JAXA launched the H-IIA Launch Vehicle No. 30 with the X-Ray Astronomy Satellite Hitomi on board on Feb. 17, 2016, from the Tanegashima Space Center. Source: JAXA

The demand for constant Internet connectivity, especially in parts of Asia going online for the first time, is fueling a surge in satellite launches.

Yet each Japanese launch costs about 10 billion yen—pricier than competitors such as Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., with its estimated $62 million Falcon 9 rides, and the Indian Space Research Organisation.

How Much a Rocket Launch Costs

Millions of dollars, 2016

China

Europe

Russia

India

Japan

US

Estimated cost per launch

90

80

$90M

 

Japan's H-IIA launch vehicle is pricier than most competitors

 

70

Medium-lift

launch class

60

Small-lift

launch class

50

$62M

Elon Musk's SpaceX offers competitive pricing for its Falcon 9 rocket

 

$33M

 

40

India's PSLV

vehicle has a very

low cost per kg

 

30

20

0

2,500

5,000

7,500

10,000

12,500

15,000

17,500

Maximum payload to orbit (kg)

Source: Seradata SpaceTrak database, SpaceX

Millions of dollars, 2016

China

Europe

India

Russia

Japan

US

Estimated cost

per launch

90

$90M

80

Japan’s H-IIA launch

vehicle is pricier than

most competitors

 

70

Medium-lift

launch class

60

Small-lift

launch class

$62M

Elon Musk's SpaceX

offers competitive pricing for its Falcon 9 rocket

 

50

40

$33M

30

India's PSLV

vehicle has a very

low cost per kg

 

20

0

5,000

10,000

15,000

2,500

7,500

12,500

17,500

Maximum payload to orbit (kg)

Source: Seradata SpaceTrak database, SpaceX

Millions of dollars, 2016

China

Europe

Russia

India

Japan

US

Estimated cost per launch

90

80

$90M

 

Japan's H-IIA launch vehicle is pricier than most competitors

 

70

Medium-lift

launch class

60

Small-lift

launch class

50

$62M

Elon Musk's SpaceX offers competitive pricing for its Falcon 9 rocket

 

$33M

 

40

India's PSLV

vehicle has a very

low cost per kg

 

30

20

0

2,500

5,000

7,500

10,000

12,500

15,000

17,500

Maximum payload to orbit (kg)

Source: Seradata SpaceTrak database, SpaceX

Millions of dollars, 2016

China

Europe

Russia

India

Japan

US

Estimated cost per launch

90

80

$90M

 

Japan's H-IIA launch vehicle is pricier than most competitors

 

70

Medium-lift

launch class

60

Small-lift

launch class

50

$62M

Elon Musk's SpaceX offers competitive pricing for its Falcon 9 rocket

 

$33M

 

40

India's PSLV

vehicle has a very

low cost per kg

 

30

20

0

2,500

5,000

7,500

10,000

12,500

15,000

17,500

Maximum payload to orbit (kg)

Source: Seradata SpaceTrak database, SpaceX

“If the Japanese space industry is to compete with the U.S., Europe and Russia, it needs to lower launch costs,” Bond said. “The current launch rate is low—only a few flights each year—preventing economies of scale.”

The country is spending about 190 billion yen to develop a rocket, dubbed H3, said to halve costs. Mitsubishi Heavy also plans to double launches to about eight a year, said Ko Ogasawara, a vice president in the Tokyo-based company’s space systems division.

The H3’s inaugural flight is set for 2020.

“Our biggest asset is our scheduling,” Ogasawara said. “We’re hardly ever late. That’s important for probes because planets move.”

JAXA also is using astronauts, or uchu hiko-shi in Japanese, to expand beyond rocketeers. The agency is working with PeptiDream Inc., a biopharmaceuticals researcher, to create peptides in zero gravity aboard the space station. Peptides are short chains of amino acids that can trigger specific changes inside cells, making them an attractive base for drug discovery.

Takuya Onishi works on a protein crystallization experiment at Kibo inside the International Space Station on Oct. 22, 2016. Source: JAXA/NASA

Back on Earth, those higher-quality crystals could result in better experimental therapies for diseases, including cancer, said Kiichi Kubota, PeptiDream’s chief executive officer.

“JAXA’s strength is that it has great expertise in peptide research,” Kubota said. “It opens the possibility of making new medicines in different fields.”

An image of volcanic activity on the Kuril Islands in Japan, taken from International Space Station on June 12, 2009. Source: JAXA/NASA

Astronaut Takuya Onishi returned Oct. 30 after almost four months aboard the International Space Station, which Japan helps maintain. His experiments included breeding mice for research into aging-related maladies, such as osteoporosis and muscle atrophy.

From space, JAXA also monitors volcanic activity for signs of impending eruptions in the country that sits on the Pacific Ocean’s “Ring of Fire.”

Japan is one of the most quake-prone countries, with the 2011 Tohoku temblor and ensuing tsunami killing about 16,000 people. Those eyes in the sky can measure movements of a few centimeters in terrain, leading to earlier warnings for local officials and emergency responders, JAXA President Okumura said.

“We have to make the space industry sustainable,” he said. “We’re aiming for growth for the whole country.”