Skip to main content

[SSI Brief] On Japan and Small Satellites Policy: The Need to Move Beyond the Experimentation Mindset

Small satellite deployment from the Japanese “Cubesat Cannon” aboard the International Space Station, Sept. 17, 2015

May 17, 2016

Over most of the past decade, Japan has been attempting to galvanize a foothold in the small satellite industry. The nation sees the potential of the technology for both economic and security reasons, and has steered space policy with the intent of capitalize on it. While these changes provide some level of promise, as reflected by evolving policy and a growing academic and private sector, the nation’s small satellite industry is still very much in its infancy. Given rapidly growing international competition, mainly from the United States and Europe but also other Asia countries, Japan must move away from experimentation and into greater production and practical utilization of its small satellites if it is to remain a notable player in this new space race.

Recent Space Law and Policy Regarding Small Satellites

While there are no explicit written policies aimed only at small satellites in Japan, discussion of such technology is openly incorporated into general policies on space. Present space policy is rooted in the 2008 Basic Space Law, a major rewrite of Japan’s official position on space. Specifically, the law moved the nation away from the goal of simple research to finding comprehensive utilization of space for “better quality of life” and “contribution to the international community,” while also providing more leeway for utilization of space technologies for national security purposes. In regard to satellites, the law has several important points: It promotes the development of a space industry, stresses the importance of having the technology to develop, launch, track, and operate satellites, and creates the Strategic Headquarters for Space Policy chaired by the Prime Minister.

Since its inception, the Strategic Headquarters for Space Policy has created two 5-year plans designed to provide the details of policies in accordance with the Space Law, the first in 2009 and its successor in 2013. The 2009 Basic Plan on Space Policy specified goals as based on the 2008 Basic Space Law, including promotion of five satellite systems for “utilization” of space and four programs for research and development. The five satellite systems included: Land and ocean observing satellites, global environmental change and weather observing satellites, advanced telecommunications satellites, positioning satellites, and national security satellites. At the same time, one of the R&D programs included a small demonstration satellite program. The 2009 plan further aimed for the production of at least one small size satellite each year by the government and a few ultra-small size satellites by universities and private enterprises.

Present Space Policy on Small Satellites

The 2013 Basic Plan on Space Policy is stated to be an adjustment of policy and programs to national and international circumstances that the Strategic Headquarters for Space Policy feels has “considerably changed” since the 2009 plan; these circumstances include demands for greater safety and security after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and nuclear disaster, as well shifts in space-related activities in the U.S., Europe, and China. The plan narrows the number of satellite systems in focus to position, remote sensing, and communication/broadcast satellite systems, while adding a focus on satellite launch vehicles. The new plan also removed the program for a small demonstration satellite, having been deemed successful, and in its place spread out the mention of the use of small satellite technologies in a number of different areas. For example, the plan promotes the use of ultra-small satellites by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in remote sensing development to help provide images and cut costs. The 2013 plan also seeks improvement of small satellites launching capabilities of Japanese launch vehicles, notably in the H-IIA rocket. It called for the testing of capabilities to launch ultra-small satellites from the International Space Station, which has been underway since the late 2013 with the so-called “Cubesat Cannon.”

The 2013 plan goes beyond edicts for government-based programs, however. Specifically, it promotes private enterprise to decrease the size of satellite in order to reduce the costs of commercial use of satellites and thereby help expand the potential users of space-based applications. It also calls on Japanese universities to continue development of ultra-small satellites.

With this policy background in mind, a brief survey of recent small satellites being built and launched was conducted (see the figure below for some of the present players in the small satellite industry). It shows a small, but growing field of players beyond the Japan’s space agency, involving both the academic and private sectors. These small satellites range in purpose, with some only being created once, while others are being put through slow iteration testing. However, the vast majority of these small satellites, regardless of iteration, are still being produced under the labels of experimentation rather than commercial utilization. This clearly puts the Japanese companies at a disadvantage when compared to some Western companies already utilizing small satellites commercially, even while individual satellites might not be optimally functional.

Japan Micro Satellite table

Moving Space Policy Forward

The third iteration of the 5-year space plan is set to come out of the Strategic Headquarters for Space Policy in the next year or so, and it is time for Japan to make aggressive policy changes to promote its infant small satellite industry out of the self-limiting cycle of experimentation and into practical utilization, as was part of the underlying intent of the 2008 Basic Space Law. There is much the Strategic Headquarters can do within space policy to move forward, for example:

  • Separate small satellites policies from large satellites
  • Direct more funding towards assisting small satellite entrepreneurs, particularly those that are offering international consumer services
  • Promote new research strategies that aim for achievements beyond experimentation

At the same time, implementing effective policy may require the Strategic Headquarters to leverage its position with Prime Minister to seek greater changes in policy areas peripheral to space, such as in regard to general entrepreneurship, import/export controls, or international cooperation strategies. Regardless, without bolder policy, Japan will not move to “better quality of life” and “contribution to the international community” that it aims towards. It will clearly take more time to see if Japan can get itself in a more competitive position, but it most certainly has the capacity to do so.

*This article is part of the IPI Space Security Initiative Series on Space Policy of Major Powers.