Japan considers putting robot on moon

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan is considering putting a robot on the moon by 2020 and an astronaut by 2030, a report from a government office showed on Friday, amid fears that the country will be left behind in Asia’s space race.

An H-2A rocket No. 15 (H-2A F15) carrying Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite (GOSAT), known as "Ibuki" in Japan, blasts off from the southern island of Tanegashima January 23, 2009. REUTERS/Kyodo

The plans follow China’s first space walk and India’s launch of their first unmanned moon mission last year. Beijing officials have said that China is looking to eventually put astronauts on the moon, though the government has not revealed any schedule.

The robot and the astronaut would probe the moon to see how its resources could be used, the report showed.

A space development panel also discussed on Friday the possibility of Japan eventually starting its own manned space program, a government official said.

“Some experts are concerned that unless there is an independent program, then Japan may be left behind in terms of space development,” said an official from the Strategic Headquarters for Space Policy (SHSP), under the Cabinet Office.

“If large scale space development projects, such as moon probes or space solar power system, are conducted, not only robots but also people will have to be there. The technology of manned space programs will certainly become the foundation in such cases,” he said.

Japan’s space program was in tatters in the late 1990s and early 2000s after unsuccessful rocket launches, but it successfully launched its first lunar explorer in 2007. It has sent six astronauts to space, all through international missions.

The Soviet Union, United States and China are the only countries that have put people in space with their own rockets.

Amid worries about a regional space race and North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities, Japan introduced a new space law last year that allows military use of space, ending a decades-old pacifist policy.

The law, which allows the military to launch its own satellites for spying and warn of missile launches but rules out offensive weapons in space, opened ways for the nation’s space industry to compete globally.

SHSP is set to announce in May its first comprehensive space strategy that will include ideas for military and diplomatic use of space, the official said.

While SHSP was founded last year to oversee the comprehensive space strategy, Japan’s space program has been led for years by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

JAXA runs on an annual budget of 228 billion yen ($2.3 billion), just a fraction of NASA’s $17 billion annual spending.

($1 = 98.16 Yen)

Editing by Sugita Katyal