Blue earth seen from the moon surface

US and Japan agree to cooperate on next lunar mission

Image credit: Rfischia | Dreamstime.com

The governments of the United States and Japan have furthered cooperation for space missions, which could include flying Japanese astronauts to the Moon.

At a joint press conference in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, US President Donald Trump announced that cooperation over space exploration was one outcome of their meetings during his visit to the country.

“I am pleased to confirm that Prime Minister Abe and I have agreed to dramatically expand our nations’ cooperation in human space exploration,” Trump said.

“Japan will join our mission to send US astronauts to space. We’ll be going to the Moon. We’ll be going to Mars very soon. It’s very exciting.”

A NASA chart released in March, prior to the announcement NASA would speed up its human lunar landing to 2024, identifies potential contributions by international partners, including the Japanese space agency JAXA

A Nasa chart released in March 2018, prior to the announcement Nasa would speed up its human lunar landing to 2024, identifies potential contributions by international partners, including the Japanese space agency Jaxa

Image credit: NASA

At the conference, neither Trump nor Abe elaborated on the nature of that agreement, the details of which are yet to be released.

However, a fact sheet released by the State Department on the same day noted that the two “agreed on the importance of a sustained human presence on and around the Moon.”

“Building on its International Space Station (ISS) experience, Japanese astronauts will strive to join American astronauts on the Moon and destinations beyond,” the State Department fact sheet noted.

An agreement of some sort between the US and Japan on their plans for further collaborative space missions had been expected to be signed during Trump’s visit to the country.

Japan, a major partner on the ISS, had shown an interest in participating in aspects of Nasa’s renewed push to return to the Moon. This includes contributing modules to the Gateway facility that Nasa plans to develop in lunar orbit to support human lunar landings.

In a video released by Nasa on 28 May (see below), Hiroshi Yamakawa, president of the Japanese space agency Jaxa, said “it’s a great pleasure to collaborate with Nasa in that endeavour,” referring to international cooperation on the development of the Gateway and its overall lunar plans.

In a separate tweet, Nasa Administrator Jim Bridenstine said he was “very excited” about the agreement announced by Trump and Abe. “Japan and [Jaxa] are critical partners in our efforts to go forward to the Moon and on to Mars!”

Previous plans to return humans to the lunar surface had a date of 2028; Nasa intends to accelerate this process to 2024.

Furthermore, major roles for international partners will mostly be deferred to the second phase, which will focus on establishing a sustainable human presence on and around the Moon after the 2024 landing.

Such roles would include contributions such as Gateway modules, which could give contributing countries slots on later lander missions, similarly to how ISS partners get crew slots on space station missions.

“Accelerating the landing date to 2024 makes it harder for us to incorporate our international partners early,” said deputy associate administrator for human exploration and operations at Nasa, Ken Bowersox, during a meeting of a Nasa Advisory Council committee.

“We’re still looking at working with our international partners. A lot of their elements were going to come after 2024 anyway.”

However, he added that if international partners can accelerate their contributions, “they’re welcome to participate in the early phases.”

It is still unclear if the agreement between the US and Japan with have any effect on other aspects of both the country’s space activities, government or commercial. However, companies welcome the agreement in any event.

For example, Japanese company ispace, which is developing commercial lunar landers and is part of a team led by American company Draper, won one of nine Commercial Lunar Payload Services agreements from Nasa in November 2018 to transport research payloads to the lunar surface.

“We are thrilled to learn that the US and Japan will deepen its strong relationship in space exploration through a focused effort on lunar exploration,” Takeshi Hakamada, founder and chief executive of ispace, said in a statement to SpaceNews.

“Alongside our American partner, Draper, ispace is well prepared and eager to support this new endeavour between the US and Japan,” Hakamada added.

Meanwhile in the space world, two Russian crewmembers on the International Space Station ventured into open space to conduct scientific research and help maintain the orbiting outpost.

Oleg Kononenko and Alexey Ovchinin worked to retrieve several scientific experiments intended to study the impact of space flight that were mounted on the space station’s exterior.

The spacewalk was scheduled to last six-and-a-half hours, but the two managed to do the job quicker and wrapped up the mission in just over six hours.

The two cosmonauts opened the hatch to the Pirs docking compartment to begin the spacewalk at 11:42am EDT. They re-entered the airlock and closed the hatch at 5:43pm.

Their crewmates - Nasa’s Anne McClain, Nick Hague and Christina Koch and David Saint-Jacques of the Canadian Space Agency - watched their progress from inside the orbiting outpost.

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