Shared Space: Keep It Clean

New measures to rein in the proliferation of space debris are among the proposed revisions to Japan’s Basic Space Law planned for 2020. Sano Kentaro reports.

CGI of objects in low Earth orbit that are currently being tracked. Low Earth orbit is the region of space within 2,000 km of the Earth’s surface. It is the most concentrated area for orbital debris. Approximately 95% of the objects in this illustration are orbital debris; that is, not functional satellites. The dots represent the current location of each item. The orbital debris dots are scaled according to the image size of the graphic to optimize their visibility and are not scaled to Earth. These images provide a good visualization of where the greatest orbital debris populations exist.

There are currently more than 20,000 human-made objects orbiting Earth, the majority being inactive satellites or fragments of rockets and their payloads. Collectively known as “space debris,” these extremely fast-moving objects pose an increasingly severe risk to the thousands of active satellites which presently orbit Earth and to the hundreds more which join them every year. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) says it receives more than 360 alerts every day from the Space Situational Awareness (SSA) Programme, an initiative of the European Space Agency to prevent collisions between satellites and space debris by giving operators time to take evasive action. Collisions dramatically increase the amount of space debris and thereby exacerbate the risk of further collisions. The fear is that near-Earth space could be rendered unusable.

Against this background and as the number of commercial, military and civil satellite launches continues to rise sharply, a Japanese “Study Group on Space Debris” has put forward a proposal for revisions to Japan’s Basic Space Law, which it presented to Prime Minister Abe at the Prime Minister’s Office on August 3, 2018. The Study Group proposed that by 2020 a national policy should be in place to monitor and remove space debris, develop space environment technologies and businesses, utilize the aforementioned SSA Programme and in doing so contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals (STI for SDGs). The Study Group further proposed that Japan should play a leading role in the formation of rules and international codes of conduct for removing or reducing space debris through relevant international frameworks such as the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) and International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

Prime Minister Abe supported the initiative and concurred on the need to bolster the international framework on the issue of space debris.

Space Policy

The Basic Space Law concerned with “Space Development and Use” was enacted in 2008, whereafter a Basic Plan for Space Policy was implemented in 2009. The six pillars of Japan’s Space Policy are: (1) Ensure a Rich, Secure and Safe Life, (2) Contribute to Enhancement of Security, (3) Promote the Utilization of Space for Diplomacy, (4) Create an energetic future by promoting R&D of the forefront areas, (5) Foster Strategic Industries for the 21st Century and (6) Consider the Environment. The issue of space debris is addressed in the sixth pillar.

Japan’s Space Policy identifies “Five Systems for Utilization”: a Land and Ocean Observing Satellite System to contribute to Asia and other regions; a Global Environmental Change and Weather Observing Satellite System; an Advanced Telecommunication Satellite System; a Positioning Satellite System; and a Satellite System for National Security. Japan’s Space Policy also identifies “Four Programs of R&D”: a Space Science Program, a Human Space Activity Program, a Space Solar Power Program and a Small Demonstration Satellite Program.

One of the results of Japan’s Basic Plan for Space Policy includes the roll out beginning in 2002 of its Quasi-Zenith Satellite System to provide highly precise and stable positioning services that augment the US-operated Global Positioning System with a focus on Japan. The fourth Michibiki satellite was launched in October 2017, and on November 1, 2018, QZSS services officially began.

Recognizing this achievement at a meeting of the Strategic Headquarters for National Space Policy on December 11, 2018, Prime Minister Abe said:

[…] Businesses or services utilizing space are now transitioning to a new era. Even in sectors that have been unrelated to space so far, such as agriculture and logistics, there is a possibility that innovative businesses will emerge. I would like to ask for proactive support with novel ideas for space-related start-ups, such as discovering concepts and verification tests.

Even in the field of security, we have entered an era in which each country is competing fiercely with one another over the use of space. As Japan is also advancing the review of the National Defense Program Guidelines, I would like to ask for the further enhancement of our security under the leadership of the Ministry of Defense, and in cooperation with other relevant ministries and agencies, in particular, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

We are also seeing an emerging global trend in the field of international space exploration, for example of the moon and Mars, which are the next frontiers for mankind. With regard to Japan’s participation in the manned Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, an initiative conceived by the United States, please coordinate with the relevant countries so that Japan can contribute actively to the initiative in our areas of strength.

China’s accomplishment on January 3 of a world-first landing of a probe on the far side of the moon attests to the giant leaps being made in space exploration by countries around the world. As Prime Minister Abe stated, Japan is ready to play a leading role in space exploration and development while bolstering international frameworks. Controlling the risks posed by space debris will be a vital contribution to that work.

SANO Kentaro is a freelance writer.


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