Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) revealed its plan to develop Japan’s first manned lunar landing vehicle, the agency announced on August 16.
JAXA’s statement is linked to planning for the new crew-tended cislunar space station project, called “Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway” or LOP-G (formerly known as the Deep Space Gateway) slated for the 2020s. The project, led by the United States, is a collaboration of global partners on the International Space Station (ISS), including Japan.
JAXA’s specific goal is to achieve a manned lunar landing around 2030, in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA). If realized, Japan would be responsible for leading the historic event of landing on the moon for the first time since the United States’ Apollo program ended about 60 years ago.
How Lunar Landing Would Work
According to the concept for the lunar landing vehicle (lunar lander), it would employ a table-like shape with four legs at the bottom, connecting at the upper part to a takeoff vehicle developed by Europe. It would be moored to the LOP-G platform in lunar orbit, then descend to the moon with a crew of up to four astronauts aboard, using the engine’s reverse thrusters to make a soft landing.
The astronauts would stay on the moon for around two days, living aboard a Canadian lunar exploration vehicle while exploring the moon. At the end of the stay, only the takeoff vessel would return to base on the LOP-G platform, leaving the landing gear behind on the moon.
JAXA anticipates that each trip would take about four or five days from start to finish and that there would be about five moon landings a year.
The expectation is that the lunar lander would to be launched by a U.S. rocket. The vehicle itself is expected to be about 1.3 times larger and two times heavier — about 35 tons — than the two-astronaut Apollo ship that made history in 1969 with the first successful moon landing in the history of mankind.
The LOP-G: A Lunar Outpost
Last spring, the United States announced plans to start building its first lunar outpost, the LOP-G space port. It has targeted the project for completion by as early as 2022. The project cost including the outpost, rockets and lunar exploration elements is expected to cost over USD90 billion (about JPY10 trillion).
The U.S. has called for collaboration on the new space port from the countries involved in the ISS, including Japan, Europe, Russia and Canada. The Japanese government and other partners expect to be involved, although the details of participation have not been decided.
The United States’ longer term goal is to carry out an eventual manned journey to Mars in the 2030s. It is positioning the LOP-G as successor space station to the ISS to provide a foothold for further space exploration.
NASA has incorporated the development of a manned lunar landing vehicle into the operational plan developed for space exploration among the cooperating international space agencies. International coordination is expected to move forward in the future.
JAXA announced a plan for the first moon landing by Japanese astronauts in remarks made last June. However, the August statement is the agency’s first ever attempt to share the concept for its vehicle. The agency plans to fill in its lunar landing concept by harnessing the high-precision landing techniques utilized for its unmanned lunar landing craft, SLIM, which is schedule for launch in three years.
Showcase of Japan’s Space Technology
Japan boasts highly advanced technologies in unmanned space vessels, such as the Kounotori cargo ship used to deliver supplies to the ISS. But, to date, JAXA has depended entirely on the United States and Russia for the transportation of its astronauts.
The plan for a manned lunar landing craft has been a long-cherished dream. If it becomes a reality, Japan’s presence in space development will dramatically gain ground.
JAXA officials express their support for the project, saying: “Manned transport technologies hold the key to space exploration. If Japan takes charge, it will lead to superiority in space activities.”
The expectation that Japanese astronauts will someday stand on the moon also rises.
However, it is still up in the air whether the plan will become a reality. Japan’s participation in the U.S. proposal to build a manned spaceport could be prerequisite for Japan’s manned lunar lander, and the Japanese government has yet to make a final decision.
Americans Returning to the Moon
In December 2017, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would be “returning American astronauts to the moon.” Some experts surmise that the U.S. is therefore likely to develop its own unique lunar lander. In that case, though, the U.S. is said to favor having Japan play a complimentary role in the project.
The development costs for JAXA’s lunar lander are estimated to exceed USD900 million (JPY100 billion) for the first unit alone. If the United Sates, building on its achievements in the Apollo program, develops its own lunar lander first, some experts fear Japan’s project would be redundant.
The engine for Japan’s lunar landing vehicle prototype uses liquified natural gas (LNG) as fuel. It was originally developed for use in a medium-sized rocket for a project that was cancelled in 2009 and is said to have the advantage of easy handling and reduced storage tank size. However, it has no track record of use in space exploration.
The key to Japan’s future in the project is likely to be the ability to demonstrate the reliability of its technology to the international community.