An artist’s concept of Japan’s Mars Moons eXploration spacecraft, carrying a NASA instrument to study the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos. Image: NASA

Several years ago, after the return of Japan’s Hayabusa space probe from the asteroid Itokawa but before the launch of Hayabusa2 in December 2014, I was discussing Japanese technology with a Silicon Valley executive.

When I started to talk about JAXA (The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) he said: I didn’t know Japan had a space program.”

So I told him about the first mission to collect samples from an asteroid, about the ion engine, another first, that powered Hayabusa on its seven-year journey, about the sample collection and about other Japanese space accomplishments such as robotic arms used on the Space Shuttle, the gears used in the Mars Curiosity Rover – made by Harmonic Drive Systems – and the solar sail demonstrator satellite Ikaros.

Now, after widespread reports of the Hayabusa2 spacecraft’s rendezvous with and sample collection from the asteroid Ryugu last November, that conversation is unlikely to be repeated. But there are still too many articles appearing about China challenging America’s dominance in space and about India’s attempt to keep up with China that ignore the fact that Japan is far ahead of both of them.

Hayabusa2 is scheduled to release its sample return capsule for landing at the Woomera Test Range in Australia in December 2020. It will then fly on in solar orbit awaiting further instructions.

The follow-up to Hayabusa2 was announced in February, when Japan’s Martian Moon eXploration Mission (MMX) was upgraded from a conceptual pre-project to an active JAXA Project.

JAXA describes MMX as follows: “Approximately one year after leaving Earth, the spacecraft will arrive in Martian space and enter into an orbit around Mars. It will then enter a Quasi Satellite Orbit (QSO) around one of the Martian moons to collect scientific data and gather a sample from the moon’s surface. After observation and sample collection, the spacecraft will return to Earth carrying the material gathered from the Martian moon.” The schedule: launch date in 2024, Martian orbit insertion in 2025 and return to Earth in 2029.

Mars has two moons, Phobos and Deimos. If all goes according to plan, the spacecraft will spend three years surveying and mapping them both. During that time, it will land on Phobos, the larger of the two, to take a sample of at least 10 grams from at least two centimeters below the surface using a coring device. It will also deploy a rover, as was done on Ryugu, to travel across the surface of Phobos and take other measurements.

Phobos has a diameter of 22.2 kilometers and Deimos 12.6 kilometers. The asteroids visited by the Hayabusa probes are much smaller. Ryugu is a little more than one kilometer across and Itokawa, which is shaped like a peanut, is only 535 meters long.

The scientific goals of the MMX mission are to investigate the origin of the Martian moons, the process of planet formation in the solar system, and the evolution of the Martian system – Mars, Phobos and Deimos.

The engineering goals are to develop technologies required for the round trip from Earth to Mars and back, landing and sampling techniques on celestial bodies, and optimal communications using a newly developed ground station.

Space mining

However, these goals are also basic requirements for establishing an operational presence in the Martian system and, in combination with the Hayabusa missions, for space mining.

NASA is pursuing similar goals, having completed its Dawn space probe mission to the asteroids Vesta and Ceres in 2018 and now planning to launch its Lucy asteroid fly-by mission in 2021 and its mission to the asteroid Psyche in 2022. Psyche is believed to consist largely of nickel-iron metal.

NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the French National Centre for Space Studies (CNES) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) are also participating in Japan’s MMX mission. The Americans and Europeans will contribute scientific instruments, the French will help plan the orbiting and landing flight dynamics and the French and Germans will provide the rover.

“Japan has an advanced space program that belies its media portrayal, and is a highly successful team player,” explains Dr Paul Kallender, a senior researcher in the Keio Research Institute at Shonan Fujisawa Campus, who has been researching and writing about Japan’s space program for the last 25 years.

“The Japanese have developed, and in fact specialized in, a series of challenging and innovative missions that have yielded an illustrious record of space and planetary exploration with an excellent reputation in the international science community, of which Hayabusa was one of many technologically and scientifically exciting missions.

“The difference is that Hayabusa was, I think, the first conscious attempt to be, for want of a word, ‘sexy’ for the mass media, and the first mission to capture the popular imagination via media attention. The ability to swoop across billions of miles of interplanetary space, pick out a tiny boulder, land on it, pick up dust, battle back through solar storms and deliver some of the oldest matter in the solar system didn’t come out of not having both a brilliant technological and engineering base and top-class scientist and mission planners,” he said.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand how the Japanese work is to look at the International Space Station, Kallender argues. Japan is one of the partners in the International Space Station project, along with the United States, Russia, Europe and Canada, providing the Japanese Experiment Module and unmanned cargo transfer vehicles that supply the station from Earth. China is not a partner, having been banned for using an anti-satellite weapon and hacking America’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The Japanese Experiment Module – JEM, also known as Kibo – includes the station’s largest pressurized module, an exposed facility, a “terrace” for outside experiments, an experimental logistics module with both pressurized and exposed sections, a remote manipulator system (robotic arm) and a long-distance laser communications system developed by JAXA and Sony Computer Science Laboratories.

“But the Japanese are great at the big stuff too,” Kallender adds. “It’s just a question of priorities. If they had wanted to, they could have built their own space shuttle. But they decided it was a waste of money and history has proven them right.”

Japan’s space program does not inspire stories of interplanetary intrigue and it does not have a headline-grabbing star like Elon Musk. But Japan is the only space-faring nation that has landed on asteroids and brought back samples and it is likely to be the first to make a round-trip to the moons of Mars.

Scott Foster is a partner and analyst with JA Research, Tokyo. A graduate of The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, where he specialized in Japanese politics, economics and language, he is the author of Stealth Japan: The Surprise Success of the World’s First Infomerc Economy (FiRe Books).