A version of this article appears in the April 28 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.

Spacecraft developed by the civilian Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will gain an expanded defense role under revisions in Japan’s basic space law enacted last year. The ALOS-2 Earth-observation radarsat set for launch next month could be an early example, particularly if Japan’s naval forces can use its data to keep track of ship movements in the region.

JAXA’s new president, an innovation expert with a strong industrial-management background, lists “security and disaster preparation” as the first of three “challenges” JAXA received under the new space law, which was designed in part to generate more return on Japan’s investment in civil spacecraft.

Naoki Okumura, a career steel-industry manager who assumed the JAXA helm a year ago at the beginning of the latest five-year “basic plan,” will be responsible for guiding the agency as it meets those challenges.

Also on the list are promoting Japanese industry and keeping Japan at the forefront of space science research, roles that JAXA has played in the past. But a military role is new, although the agency launched a classified four-satellite reconnaissance constellation in 2005, developed for the Japanese military in response to threatening actions by North Korea (AW&ST Feb. 7, 2005, p. 38).

“It is true that security is one of the three challenges in the basic space law, but it is more about using our basic space technology for the purpose of security,” says Okumura, noting that late last year Japan entered an agreement to exchange unclassified space situational awareness (SSA) information with U.S. Strategic Command through Japan’s foreign ministry. “We are providing information from JAXA to the ministry of foreign affairs in Japan. So it is not about developing military satellites or something like that, but it’s more about utilizing the current assets that we have and providing information.”

Still in discussion is a possible maritime surveillance role, Okumura told Aviation Week in an interview at his office here this month. “We will be utilizing the civil space technologies that we have developed so far for the purposes of SSA and [maritime domain awareness],” he says. “For military research, it will continue to be conducted by the ministry of defense.”

The JAXA chief stressed that no decision on maritime surveillance has been taken yet. “It’s not that it’s confidential, but it’s not yet decided and it’s still under consideration; we’ve decided the role of SSA, but we haven’t decided anything further.”

If JAXA takes on an ocean-surveillance role, it could well involve the ALOS-2 spacecraft, also known as Daichi-2. As part of its focus on the atmospheric water cycle, JAXA has just launched the Global Precipitation Mission (GPM), a joint effort with NASA to broaden space-based coverage of rainfall and snow between 65 deg. N. and S. Lat. (AW&ST Feb. 3, p. 41).

Next up will be ALOS-2, on an H-IIA rocket scheduled to lift off from JAXA’s Tanegashima launch center on May 24. Built by Mitsubishi Electric Co., which also developed Japan’s fleet of two optical and two radar reconnaissance satellites, the follow-on JAXA Earth-observation satellite will carry an L-band synthetic aperture radar (SAR) that may help the civilian agency gain a maritime-surveillance role along with improving the resolution of it primary dry-land observations.

Soviet ocean-surveillance spacecraft used SAR to monitor ship traffic during the Cold War, and the technology can be effective in spotting ship wakes if not the moving vessels themselves. ALOS-2 is designed to provide day/night 1-3-meter (3.3-9.8-ft.) resolution imagery across a 50-350-km (31-217-mi.) swath through all weather conditions. It will also carry a space-based automatic identification system experiment designated Spaise2 that will evaluate a system to fuse shipborne Automatic Identification System signals with SAR imagery to put a name—or the absence of one—to vessels tracked by the spaceborne radar.

Although the new space plan may give JAXA a larger role in defending Japan at a time when it faces potential threats from China as well as North Korea, the main objective of the new space plan is to use JAXA’s expertise and assets to aid the Japanese economy (AW&ST May 6, 2013, p. 36).

“We have established a new business promotion center . . . to support industry, which does not necessarily work on space activities in the past,” Okumura says. “In case they wish to utilize space as a place for their experiments or business, we support their activities.” 

The new center has a role somewhat like that of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (Casis), a non-profit mandated by the U.S. Congress and set up by NASA to promote commercial use of the International Space Station. JAXA operates the largest pressurized module on the ISS, Kibo, and is making inroads in persuading Japanese companies to use its facilities.

One example is Yakult, which manufactures yogurt-like “probiotic” beverages and has been involved in developing cancer-fighting drugs.

“We recently announced that we are going to work on collaborative research [with Yakult],” Okumura says. “The achievement of this collaborative research that we are expecting is to prevent the decrease of immunity for astronauts who will be traveling even further [into space] in the future.”

JAXA’s new center also is promoting the use of Kibo for protein crystal growth, which uses the microgravity environment there to produce material that can ease designer-drug development on the ground.

“In the past, it was mainly university professors who joined in such experiments, but it is very new for pharmaceutical private companies to join this experiment,” says Okumura.

Japan is also developing a new launch vehicle, designated H-X or H-III, powered by a new version of the LE-7 main engine, with a first flight scheduled in 2020. It is intended to help Japan break into the commercial launch services market long denied it by the high cost of flying on earlier H-class launch vehicles; Okumura concedes it will be difficult to compete with low-cost launchers such as the SpaceX Falcon 9.

“In the past 10 years, we measured our success in our own mission by launching satellites and rockets,” says Okumura, who spent six years as an executive member of Japan’s Council for Science and Technology Policy, charged with promoting innovation for the nation’s economy. “But from now on, we need to measure our success in how we contribute to those three challenges in the basic space law.”