Japan boldly goes…

Asteroid probe boosts the country’s heretofore invisible space program, writes Asia Sentinel’s Todd Crowell

Suddenly, Japan’s awareness of its space program has come alive after decades during which, for the most part, the Japanese paid little attention to their country’s exploration plans or even realized they had one.

Japanese astronauts, usually piggybacking onto other nations’ missions into space, are usually good for a day or so of newspaper stories and perhaps a goodwill visit to some school children. But that all came to a flaming end earlier this month when the space probe Hayabusa streaked across the sky over Western Australia, safely jettisoning its payload for scientists to examine after a seven-year space voyage to a tiny pinprick of an asteroid, Itokawa, 300 million kilometers from earth – and back.

Japanese, not to mention the rest of the world, suddenly woke up to the fact that their country had become just the second country in world history, and the first since the Apollo missions to the moon in the 1970s, to send a space vehicle to another world and then return it to Earth. Japan is on the cutting edge of space exploration.

If that were not enough, only a few days earlier the Japanese space agency, known as the Japan Aeronautical Exploration Agency (JAXA), launched the Akatsuki on a voyage to Venus, where it is expected to go into orbit around the planet and obtain information on climate patterns. It carries an array of cameras and other instruments to capture the movement of the atmosphere.

Japan is by no means the first country to send an exploratory probe to Venus, but it is the first one to focus primarily on climate. It will complement a soon-to -launch European probe meant to orbit both poles to study the chemical composition of Venus’s atmosphere.

The same rocket carried aloft yet another space vehicle, the Ikaros, which is billed as the world’s first space “yacht.” By that the agency means it will deploy a “sail” made up of an extraordinarily thin polymer membrane designed to catch the solar wind and propel the probe onward.