“There is a gap between what Japan needs and what it is able to do alone”

A space oddity

Why aren’t Europe and Japan collaborating more in exploring the final frontier?

Text by Justin McCurry

In October 2018, an Ariane rocket will blast off from Kourou, French Guiana, taking space exploration into an unknown world, and Japanese-European cooperation into a new era.

The destination of the BepiColombo mission — featuring Japanese and European satellites that will be launched together — is Mercury, one of the most inhospitable places in the solar system. Built at a cost of €1.6 billion, the four-tonne spacecraft is an ideal example of how ambitious space exploration can be if agencies join hands in their journey to the final frontier.

The BepiColombo craft — the product of years of collaboration between the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) — will enter Mercury’s orbit in 2025.

Yet, on arrival, the Japanese and European orbiters — the two main components of the “flight stack” — will go their separate ways. That makes scientific sense, but it is also symbolic of the relationship between the two space industries: ostensibly collaborative, but still light years from fulfilling their true potential.

In its 2016 white paper, the European Business Council (EBC) in Tokyo noted that Japan’s space industry was still largely closed to foreign entities due to the government’s dominant role in offering tenders for major projects.

“Japan’s willingness to cooperate in satellite development programmes still rarely extends to European companies,” the white paper says, adding that in the satellite sector, “The space agencies of both sides cooperate and share data in science and research, but have almost no industrially meaningful cooperation.”

Among its recommendations, the EBC calls for an end to exclusionary tenders, and urges greater cooperation between JAXA and ESA.

Those recommendations sound depressingly familiar to Guy Bonaud, representative director in Japan of Safran, a French company that forms part of the ArianeGroup together with Airbus.

Safran, with its expertise in rocket propulsion technology, has had a presence in Japan since 1998. Through Ariane, the firm is indirectly involved in both Japanese private- and government-sector satellite launches, but Bonaud believes the full potential of the relationship has yet to be realised.

“We are looking to develop our relationship with Japan,” he says. “We have a good relationship with JAXA and the Japanese cabinet office, but so far it’s based on good intentions.”

European firms have to tread carefully, however, even though they are convinced their technology is superior to what is currently available in Japan.

That includes Earth observation imaging, according to Bonaud: “There is a gap between what Japan needs and what it is able to do alone, but it’s not like we can tell them that their product is inferior to ours. We have to share our information and encourage governmental cooperation.”

Arianespace, which has provided launch services in Japan for just over three decades, is a European success story here. The firm concludes an average of about one launch services contract a year and enjoys a 74% share of the Japanese market, compared with a global average of 50%, according to Kiyoshi Takamatsu, Japan representative for Arianespace.

The similarities between the Japanese and European satellite programmes have fostered a good degree of cooperation, Takamatsu observes.

At present, ESA and JAXA have just one large launcher each — the Ariane 5 in French Guiana and the H-2A at Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture. But both are developing new-generation launchers — the Ariane 6 and the H-3 — offering scope for cooperation as both agencies crystalise their projects.

“Formal discussions haven’t started yet, but this is a very good opportunity as, for the first time, both agencies are developing new launchers,” Takamatsu says. “There should be flexibility in how this is done, including discussions on technology and also during the development phase.”

Takamatsu is “enthusiastic, rather than optimistic”, about the potential for close collaboration on the launchers.

“The difficulty is that, historically, Japan has developed launchers without Europe,” he says. “Japan and the US have a long history of cooperation and technological transfer, and it is easier for them to keep doing the same thing.”

The launch of BepiColombo is not the only example of what JAXA and the ESA can achieve when they work together, from mission conception to lift off. There is huge potential in mapping the causes and effects of climate change, devising better weather forecasting models, and Earth observation in general, according to Jean Charles Bigot of the external relations department at the European Space Agency.

Bigot cites the joint European-Japanese Earth Cloud Aerosol and Radiation Explorer (EarthCARE) satellite mission, which will begin in August 2019. The mission, according to the ESA website, “will advance our understanding of the role that clouds and aerosols play in reflecting incident solar radiation back out to space and trapping infrared radiation emitted from Earth’s surface”.

Projects like EarthCARE and BepiColombo prove that close collaboration could result in potentially groundbreaking results for planetary exploration.

There are other success stories, too. SES, headquartered in Luxembourg, operates more than a dozen satellites with “excellent coverage over Japan”, according to Philippe Glaesener, SES’s senior vice president of corporate development in the EMEA region and Asia.

SES has the backing of the Luxembourg government, a major shareholder in the firm. This helps in its attempts to secure involvement in specific projects with potential partners such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, JAXA and Mitsubishi Electric Corp.

SES will take part in a Luxembourg trade mission this November that, according to Glaesener, is a unique opportunity to strengthen partnership and collaboration in Japan.

“We have no doubt that building on these relationships will unlock opportunities for SES in Japan,” he says. “Our business outlook for Japan is very positive.”

In the longer-term, Bigot of ESA would like to see other agreements in the field of planetary science that match the ambition of BepiColombo and EarthCARE.

They include the development of small spacecraft that can negotiate planets with rocky, uneven surfaces, such as Venus.

“Also, the idea of Martian moon exploration is one of the next big priorities for JAXA,” Bigot says. “We could provide instruments for this and are talking to the ESA about how best to go about it.”

Much more needs to be done at the macro level to make European-Japanese space exploration truly collaborative. For example, while JAXA has an office in Paris, there is no equivalent ESA office in Tokyo — a lop-sided arrangement that European industry figures agree should be rectified as soon as possible.

“The Japanese space industry is government-backed, so it’s a very difficult market to break into,” says Bonaud. “In that respect, it’s a very controlled, old-fashioned kind of industry.” 

“The Japanese space industry is … a very controlled, old-fashioned kind of industry”