See how Japan’s space industry is gaining momentum

The International Space Station, which Japan’s space industry has used in its development

The International Space Station has been used for research by Japan’s space industry. Image: Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Naoko Kutty
Writer, Forum Agenda
Naoko Tochibayashi
Communications Lead, Japan, World Economic Forum
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  • The size of the global space business market, which reached $469 billion in 2021, is expected to reach $1 trillion by 2040.
  • Japan’s space industry is worth approximately JPY1.2 trillion (around $8.6 billion) and the Japanese government wants to double that to JPY2.4 trillion (around $17 billion) by the early 2030s.
  • It will be impossible to maximise the results of these unflagging efforts without the public and private sectors working together to achieve sustainable development across Japan's space industry.

The space business is growing at a phenomenal speed: the size of the global space market, which reached $469 billion in 2021, is expected to reach $1 trillion by 2040. Under these circumstances, Japan’s space industry, which has been a government-led business domain, is increasingly being joined by private companies, including startups with advanced initiatives.

Currently, Japan’s space industry is worth approximately JPY1.2 trillion (around $8.6 billion). The Japanese government has set a vision to double that to JPY2.4 trillion (around $17 billion) by the early 2030s. The vision positions Japan’s space industry as a sector that will contribute to Japan's economic growth. Its major policies include the fusion of space with new technology domains, such as AI and IoT, collaboration with other industries and the promotion of space ventures.

The history of spaceflight in Japan

More than ten Japanese astronauts have achieved numerous goals in space. In 1990, Toyohiro Akiyama became the first Japanese person to fly into space, spending six days in the Mir space station. Mamoru Mōri and Naoko Yamazaki subsequently flew aboard NASA's Space Shuttle in 1992 and 2010. While, Koichi Wakata – who has flown in space five times since 2000 and has stayed in space for 504 days, the longest cumulative stay by a Japanese person – returned three months ago from his fifth space flight, a 157-day stay on the International Space Station (ISS).

Businessman Yusaku Maezawa became the first Japanese private citizen to fly into space in 2021, spending 12 days on the ISS. The era when anyone can go to space is steadily approaching.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) recently conducted the first selection examination for new astronaut candidates in 14 years. This year, Makoto Suwa, Senior Disaster Management Specialist at the World Bank, and Dr. Ayu Yoneda, a surgeon, were selected. Both may go to the Moon in the US-led manned lunar mission 'Artemis' in the future.

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Private interest in Japan's space industry grows

While various players from large corporations to SMEs and startups are expected to boost Japan's space industry in the future, NYK Line (Japan Mail Shipping Line), Sompo Japan under SOMPO Holdings, ENEOS Holdings, Kyocera, Mitsubishi Logistics and security company LAC have announced their participation in the Deloitte Tohmatsu Group's space-related business programme GRAVITY Challenge JP with the aim of creating new space businesses.

This programme aims to develop new services in the space industry by connecting large Japanese companies and government agencies seeking to solve social issues with startups, universities, research institutions and other organizations with technologies and solutions. The selection of startups and research institutions with which to collaborate is now underway with the aim of starting preparations for commercialisation in the Autumn of 2023.

NYK Line plans to use sanitary data to improve the safety and efficiency of ship operations and reduce environmental impact, including reducing downtime, which refers to the time a ship is stopped due to collision or grounding and precisely measuring emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and other substances.

Sompo Japan also aims to collaborate with a startup that develops risk management services for space travel operators and travel insurance for space travel companies. It will analyse the business model of the space industry to create insurance.

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Startups drive Japan's space industry

Five years ago, there were only about ten space startups in Japan. Today there are more than 50, spearheading the growth of Japan's space industry. Masashi Sato, co-founder and COO of SPACETIDE, a general incorporated association that supports the development of the space business industry, says that the Japanese space industry is characterised by the presence of many unique startups that create value by combining space and other industries.

GITAI, a Japanese startup developing autonomously controlled robots for space, has a grand vision of reducing the cost of work for astronauts, which is equivalent to $130,000 per hour (around JPY18 million) to one-hundredth of that with a general-purpose robot.

The company is on the verge of realizing this vision at a breakneck pace, having signed a contract with NASA in 2021, its fifth year in business, to conduct successful experiments on the ISS, including the assembly of solar panels using the S1 robotic arm developed by the company. This is the first time a robot has been used for general-purpose work in space and the Japanese startup has opened up a new horizon for space development.

S1 is designed to automate work in orbital services, such as space stations, and in lunar base development. By combining AI-based autonomous control with remote control by an operator on the ground, S1 can perform tasks that are difficult to perform with conventional robotic arms.

The company's selling point is its high-precision robotics that can reproduce precise movements, such as those of human hand movements and force application. The company is also developing a lunar robot rover that can conduct scientific experiments and assemble solar panels and other equipment on the lunar surface. It expects to be able to use this to construct lunar cities in the future.

In addition, as the benefits of space utilisation spread to a wide range of industries, including the spread of Internet communications using satellites and the realization of a 'super-smart society' utilising satellite data, the demand for satellites is increasing worldwide. Infostella, which is engaged in networking and installation support services for satellite ground antennas, has established a ground station site in Taiki Town, Hokkaido, to install and operate the antennas.

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Public-private partnerships are key to a sustainable space business

Not every challenge is a success, as was the case with the failed first lunar landing mission of Japanese startup ispace, a partner company of the World Economic Forum. But efforts to develop further opportunities in space continue. It will be impossible, however, to maximise the results of these unflagging efforts without the public and private sectors working together to achieve sustainable development.

Astronaut Matthias Maurer, who participated in the World Economic Forum's Davos Agenda in 2022 live from space, said: “We need to take measures to make sure that space is clean and accessible also in the future for everyone, because you will not want to live in a world where space is no longer accessible. Our economy, our daily lives, depend way too much on everything that we have here in space.”

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