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India and Japan are joining forces to beat China in the Asian space race

India and Japan took their deepening natural partnership into outer space when the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) divulged that they may jointly carry out a sample-return mission to the moon.

There is a sound rationale for this even though the two countries have independent plans to go to the moon: ISRO’s Chandrayaan-2 orbiter-lander-rover mission is proposed for launch in 2018 and JAXA’s Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) mission in 2019. They have had success in the past, too: since 2007-08, JAXA’s Selene orbiter and ISRO’s first orbiter-impactor, Chandrayaan-1, have found water on the moon, discovered lunar volcanic tubes, which could serve as sites for human habitation (pdf), and mapped the eternally dark Shackleton crater, among others. Their concern is the wide techno-economic gap with Beijing, which is playing an efficient game of catch-up with Washington. This, in turn, is affecting the geo-strategic balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, and, likewise, India’s and Japan’s security outlook.

Catching up makes comparisons inevitable. While New Delhi and Tokyo took 10 long years to graduate from orbiter to the forthcoming landing-roving demonstrations, Beijing undertook four lunar missions from 2007 to 2014. The last of them, Chang’e 5-T1, went around the moon, practicing a sample-return mission. In 2018-2019, when India and Japan will carry out SLIM and Chandrayaan-2, Beijing will be technologically far ahead with its back-to-back sample-return missions, Chang’e-5 and Chang’e-6, that are likely to bring back a few kilograms of lunar soil and rocks for high-end analyses. These analyses will be vital for Beijing to develop space systems and technologies for safely carrying out human-rated missions in the 2020s. Beijing’s fast-tracked lunar exploration programme has put it on par with the US and Russia, which are also preparing for human-rated moon missions in the 2020s.

A joint moon mission makes sense also because it is thriftier to pool resources when up against the economically stronger countries: China, US, and Russia. Besides, there are many lessons that Japan can offer India, such as its success with public-private collaboration in the space launch and exploration sector: for nearly two decades, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has been the primary manufacturer and operator of JAXA’s expendable launch system. New Delhi is mulling over privatising the manufacturing, management, and launch operations of its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle by 2020.

The partnership will also stimulate the development of several crucial technologies, such as the electric ion propulsion (EIP) engines. ISRO recently demonstrated its EIP engines on the South Asia Satellite, a strategic undertaking of prime minister Narendra Modi’s Neighbourhood First Policy. JAXA’s EIP engines have performed intricate and autonomous manoeuvring of the Hayabusa space probe (launched in 2003) that touched the surface of asteroid Itokawa, 300 million miles away from the Earth (pdf).

Crucial for any extraterrestrial sample-return mission is the construction of non-polluting and non-contaminating clean-room infrastructure for the storage of extra-terrestrial samples. JAXA’s Hayabusa series of sample-return missions has resulted in collaborations with companies, like the Hitachi High-Tech Corporation, to develop this. Such infrastructure will also be crucial for space-station based manufacturing, which is an anticipated major industrial sector in the coming decades.

New Delhi and Tokyo will also have to devise the network for communicating with the proposed spacecraft. India and Japan currently possess one Deep Space Communication Network (DSCN) antenna each: a 32 m antenna in Karnataka and one measuring 64 m in Nagano, Japan. All their outer space missions have been dependent so far on the US DSCN global triad—three radio antennae, located roughly 120 degrees from each other across the globe—based in California, Spain, and Australia.

China, Russia, and Europe possess an independent DSCN global triad, which they regarded a national priority. Considering the numerous outer space missions, planned by American public agencies and their thriving private space sector, it is likely that the US DSCN will have too many domestic liabilities to be available for international customers. Therefore, Tokyo and New Delhi should use their partnership to build a DSCN infrastructure each—the state-of-the-art 70 m antenna—on each other’s land parcels. They should together pitch for a property in the Western Hemisphere, akin to what the Chinese acquired in Patagonia, Argentina.

Lunar exploration technologies that seemed fantasies in the past are now becoming imminent possibilities. The rush to acquire them is resulting in a space race in Asia that is additionally yielding scientific research and techno-economic growth. It is, therefore, important that the new India-Japan outer-space partnership use the lunar mission as an opportunity to fill the gaps, techno-economic and otherwise.


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