JAXA: Japan's Aerospace Exploration Agency

Japan’s Hayabusa asteroid probe returns to Earth and releases its sample capsule.
Earth return of Japan's Hayabusa asteroid probe and release of its sample capsule. (Image credit: C. Waste and T. Thompson (NASA/JPL-Caltech))

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) was formed in 2003 after the merger of three government space organizations into one. JAXA is responsible for all civilian space activities in Japan, with activities ranging from basic space research to ongoing space missions.

Japan's human exploration program long predates the beginning of JAXA, including numerous contributions to the International Space Station. Its work on station includes the Kibo research module (including a robotic arm) and regular cargo flights to ISS using the H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV).

The country is also noted for several robotic exploration missions – Hayabusa's sample return mission from asteroid 25143 Itokawa and the lunar mission SELENE are examples – and its new self-checking rocket, Epsilon.

Early Japanese space research

Prior to JAXA, Japan pursued space through three different agencies. The Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) and the National Aerospace Laboratory of Japan (NAL) were both created in 1955, while the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA) was formed in 1969.

ISAS focused on robotic space missions, including the PENCIL suborbital rocket launch in 1955 and the first satellite, OHSUMI, which launched in 1970. (The entity was previously known by other names, but was called ISAS after a research agreement was forged between Japanese universities in 1981.)

NAL (first called the National Aeronautical Laboratory) worked on rockets, aircraft, aerospace transportation and related technology. NASDA also performed work in satellites and launch vehicles, and was the hub for Japan's early astronaut program.

Japanese authorities elected to merge the three groups into one in 2003. The goal was to form "one independent administrative institution to be able to perform all their activities in the aerospace field as one organization, from basic research and development to utilization," JAXA stated.

It's important to note that much of the work carried out by JAXA today originates from research performed at these three agencies. One example is work on the ISS.

Japan human spaceflight and the ISS

Japan's first astronaut selection took place in 1985 under NASDA, with three candidates selected: Mamoru Mohri, Chiaki Mukai and Takao Doi. Mohri was the first one to fly into space, riding aboard STS-47 in 1992. The mission on space shuttle Endeavour included Spacelab-J, a scientific module that included numerous Japanese experiments.

The aim of the early Japanese spaceflights was to accumulate research experience that would be useful on the ISS. Then they learned about other station duties: on STS-72 in 1996, for example, Koichi Wakata (part of the 1992 astronaut class) became the first Japanese astronaut to operate robotics in space.

The first spacewalk took place in 1997, when Takao Doi did procedure evaluations for station aboard STS-87. More astronauts were selected in several rounds to fill the demand for orbital slots. JAXA's most recent astronaut selection was in 2009.

For the station, NASDA and JAXA created cargo spaceships and the Kibo – the first Japanese module for human spaceflight. "We will finally be able to conduct experiments in such fields as new material development, which require a lot of preparation time, and to study the impact of long stays in space on the human body," stated Tetsuo Tanaka, director of JAXA's space environment utilization center, in 2006.

A newer JAXA mission to station is a "talking robot", Kirobo, intended to interact with astronauts and gain information about their mental health.

Robotic missions

Hayabusa is one of Japan's most famous robotic missions. The spacecraft launched in 2003 and successfully arrived at the asteroid in September 2005. It deployed a lander, MINERVA, that was supposed to hop from place to place on the surface, but MINERVA never made it. Hayabusa itself made a successful landing in November 2005, attempted to scoop up material, and returned to Earth safely in 2010 after encountering many failures along the way (including two of its four ion engines). [Photos: Hayabusa: Japan's Asteroid Mission]

JAXA launched a successor mission called Hayabusa2 in December 2014. The spacecraft is en route to a carbonaceous asteroid called Ryugu, where it will arrive in mid-2018 and deploy several small robots on the surface. Hayabusa2 will also scoop up a bit of the asteroid itself for sample return. The spacecraft is expected to leave the asteroid in late 2019 and come back to Earth in late 2020.

Another prominent effort is SELenological and ENgineering Explorer (SELENE, also known as Kayuga), a mission to explore the moon. The lunar mission launched in 2007 and operated for well over a year before SELENE was steered into the lunar surface as planned. The mission aimed to learn about the moon's "elemental and mineralogical composition, its geography, its surface and sub-surface structure, the remnant of its magnetic field, and its gravity field," JAXA stated on its website.

Other prominent missions

The Hinode (SOLAR-B) spacecraft launched in September 2006 to do solar observations. Its focus is on understanding more about the solar corona, which is the sun's atmosphere. The aim is to better predict solar weather and its effect on Earth.

The Venus orbiter Akatsuki was supposed to arrive at the cloudy planet in 2010, but didn't make it due to an engine failure. The spacecraft was in an orbit that allowed it to make another close pass by Venus in December 2015, close enough for JAXA to push it into orbit using the attitude control engine. Observations started in April 2016.

JAXA has been periodically testing a solar sail demonstrator called Ikaros, which launched in 2010. The spacecraft has periods of operations broken up by planned hibernations, the latest of which took place in 2015.

JAXA launched the ASTRO-H/Hitomi X-ray observatory in early 2016, but the mission lost contact with Earth and was declared lost in April of that year.

A more recent technology demonstrator is the Epsilon rocket, which is intended to perform its own health checks and relieve the work burden off of ground controllers. The aim is to launch the rocket from the equivalent of a couple of desktop computers, rather than large mainframes, and to cut costs.

"You may doubt that artificial intelligence can be used in a rocket, but nowadays a self-inspection function is something commonly seen in machinery," stated Yasuhiro Morita, Epsilon's launch vehicle project manager. "Another example is a medical device such as the electrocardiograph, which uses artificial intelligence to diagnose heart abnormalities."

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace