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JAXA-Toyota rover project a model for public-private cooperation in space

The Yomiuri ShimbunClose collaboration with private companies will be vital for advancing Japan’s space development. Will a lunar rover be able to give such an approach a shot in the arm?

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and Toyota Motor Corp. have announced a project to develop a lunar rover. Toyota will use its technologies to enable stable driving and other operations, based on its fuel-cell vehicle technology, and produce a rover that people could spend a long period inside.

JAXA will support the project by providing data about the moon’s environment and other information. The project aims to have the rover driving on the moon’s surface in the 2030s.

Toyota’s attempt to develop a rover able to withstand extreme conditions can help the automaker lift the level of its own technologies. JAXA, which faces budgetary constraints, can take advantage of the strengths of a private company possessing advanced technologies to improve its space exploration techniques.

JAXA and Toyota both saw the advantages in forming a cooperation agreement. The participation of a leading Japanese company in this project will hopefully give impetus to further collaboration between the public and private sectors.

Around the world, there has been a flurry of private companies entering the space field. Using the technologies of private companies accelerates the development of rockets and spacecraft. This also can cut development costs.

In the United States, the private sector is spearheading development of a manned spacecraft capable of flying to and from the International Space Station (ISS). This month, a private spacecraft successfully docked at the ISS and returned to Earth. An Israeli private organization also has launched a lunar probe.

Make merits known

In recent years, JAXA also has sought to work with the private sector on the ISS and other projects. While this has gradually been recognized, cooperation on exploration technology has been realized only in limited aspects, such as for observation equipment and the use of space observation data.

It seems the advantages of joint development have not been made sufficiently well known.

Research cooperation with JAXA offers a private company the opportunity to demonstrate prototypes of motors, sensors and other equipment in rockets and space probes. The company can basically use the results for its own business. JAXA’s use of this equipment would be limited to the field of space development.

Amid all this, the moon’s surface is the stage where these challenges will take shape. Several countries, including China, have set ambitious exploration targets.

Japan also plans to send an unmanned lunar probe called SLIM, featuring the pinpoint landing technologies used by the Hayabusa2 asteroid explorer.

The plan for constructing a U.S.-led manned space base in the vicinity of the moon is also becoming more tangible. The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration is calling for cooperation from the nations currently participating in the ISS. The new U.S. presidential budget proposal included funds for developing power supply systems for the base with the goal of realizing them in the mid-2020s.

Japan also has shown its willingness to share the workload of transporting materials on unmanned supply vessels and constructing habitat modules. Given the colossal cost and advanced technologies these projects require, close cooperation with the private sector in this field will be essential.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, March 14, 2019)Speech



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