Japan and China Start Space Race

TOKYO (RIA Novosti, by Andrei Fesyun) — Japan and China have started their space race forty years after the USSR and the USA became rivalries in the discovery of space.

It became clear when an updated N-2A rocket, of Japanese design and manufacture, was successfully launched at the Tanegashima Island space center in the Kagoshima prefecture, 1,200 kilometers southwest of Tokyo on February 26.

Japan’s seventh launch was put off several times. The additional check of all the spacecraft parts, a bad weather forecast, or sheer superstition were the main reasons for the delays. A similar rocket and two spy satellites were launched in November 2003 to watch North Korea. But they deviated from the route ten minutes after the launch and had to be destroyed by a ground-controlled device.

It was a painful blow on the reputation of Japanese scientists as it happened just a month after China made its first manned flight to challenge its (still) more prosperous neighbor. Japan’s Aerospace Agency was steeped in gloomy silence, while China’s authorities were trumpeting far and wide the birth of another space power. Lieutenant-Colonel Yang Liwei was named the nation’s hero a few hours after his landing. Hundreds of thousands of jubilant Chinese greeted and cheered him at the top of their voice.

Yet, Japan would not give in. The new launch of the N-2A rocket was of pivotal importance because it would define the future of the research program. If the launch flopped as previously, the country would lose its face and any opportunity to monitor the South Pacific typhoons brewing, gaining strength, and moving to its coast. Now, it has safely orbited a weather satellite, which replaced the Sunflower 5 worn out last year. Previously, Japan used the US satellite information for making weather forecasts.

Japan launched its first rocket in 1970. Among other successful projects, the Japanese scientists managed to launch a lunar survey probe. But, on the whole, their theoretical researches were rather exotic. Thus, two observatories were busy several days in search of extraterrestrial life near the Hydra constellation, where a US astronomer came upon radio waves in 1988, presumably artificial.

The Nishi-Harima astronomical observatory in the Hyogo prefecture, proud possessor of Japan’s largest telescope, and the Mizusawa astro-geodynamic observatory in the Iwate prefecture were engaged in this progect. The group of scientists led by Professor Mitsumi Fujishita was searching the problem area with a radio telescope, while the scientists at the Nishi-Harima were groping for a yellow star that presumably had solar radiation near Hydra. If they were a success, it could be proposed that there might be a planet resembling the Earth and with livable conditions.

China’s space breakthroughs forced Japan to rehash its program, and shift the stress to manned flights within the next twenty years. An especially provocative challenge came from the neighbor as the Chinese top announced a craft with two pilots would be orbited for five to six days in September or October this year. If it is a success, China is planning another manned flight for 2007, with a venture into open space and docking experiments.

At present, Japan is intending to launch lunar survey probes to the Venus and the Mercury. However, many scientists advise to conduct some successful conventional launches before starting this project.

A recently approved program envisages creating a satellite network that would warn of natural disasters before 2015. Holders of mobile phones would be able to receive warning messages directly from the satellite. By 2025, Japan hopes to set a space station at the Moon. In five years, the scientists are planning to send a researcher robot, and in ten years to deploy astronauts to the Moon for a long time.

"That is part of a long-term plan of our space research program to be submitted to the government," Yoshifumi Inatani, Aerospace Agency spokesman, said at a recent news conference.

However, he made a noticeable reservation saying that they did not made a final decision because the government had not allocated funds for researches and was reducing financing of space programs.

Space research allocations have been dwindling since 1999. This year’s Aerospace Agency budget makes a mere 179 billion yen, roughly $1,700 million. Experts leave their jobs, and space-related employment shrank by an approximate 30 per cent within the four preceding years, says Keiichi Tachikawa, the agency’s president.

"The Japanese economy is ranking the world’s second, and we cannot afford a lag in the space efforts, with their transnational purport," he pointed out. The agency chief hopes, however, that the authorities will understand the importance of space researches and allocate necessary funds for the programs.

True, Japan is allocating more funds for space projects than China, yet far less than the United States. The NASA receives 16 billion dollars annually. It is apt here to look back at the N-2A expenditures. The successful launch cost 9,400 million yen, roughly $89 million, as against a global average of $68 million, or 7 billion yen, per launch.

At present, Japanese are carefully speaking about space partnership with China. That prospect, however, appears too good to be true, in the view of the recent anti-Japanese public outbreaks in several Chinese cities, with vandalism and harsh words.

Meanwhile, Tokyo is watching Beijing’s space ventures "attentively though not closely," says Inatani. Japan firmly intends to launch three N-2As within the next twelve months-one of these to orbit a spy satellite to monitor North Korea and China.

China is anxious to get to the Moon too. They have worked out the Zhang-ye "lunar project," named after a legendary lunar traveler. The allocations for the project amount to 1,400 million yuan, roughly $170 million. It envisages several satellite launches for 2007, with a controlled craft to land in the Moon three years after to get soil samples and then come back to the Earth.

None of Chinese has openly mentioned a space race with Japan. Today the difference of the two countries’ economic might is still too significant. Besides, Beijing always emphasizes the peaceful intention of its space programs to refute US apprehensions of their military purport.

Meanwhile, Japan traditionally relies on America that has included astronaut Shoichi Noguchi in the Discovery crew. The launch is scheduled for this June and the shuttle is to dock the International Space Station. The Japanese astronaut and his colleagues are to make three space walks. They are to replace some station components and thoroughly examine the shuttle to get sure it is not damaged.

Apart from routine work, astronaut Noguchi is eager to give the world a firsthand view of some intricacies of Japanese culture. He is planning to demonstrate the art of origami, making folded paper figurines, and cook curried rice in a microwave oven during the Earth-ISS television linkup.