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Space agency raises international competitiveness of commercial partners

Interview - December 16, 2016

The commercialization of JAXA’s in-house developed technologies from its R&D holds huge potential for adding value to a massive range of applications and inject further vigor into the Japanese economy and contribute greatly to human society’s development, as Japan’s space agency is now at a point where its information and understanding of space and R&D can broadly impact on almost all activities at national governmental and commercial levels, as its President Dr Naoki Okumura explains.



How do you see the Japanese economy up to 2020 and what are the key challenges it will face? To what extent the aerospace exploration efforts can help to reinvigorate the Japanese economy?

The structural issues that Japan’s economy is facing with the ageing population and the decrease in the labor force need political intervention. Personally, I believe we should be able to increase the productivity per labor force participation. By being able to do this, the Japanese economy might see substantial growth.

The government is trying to promote policies to change the way Japanese work inside companies. Even within JAXA, I am working on the required reforms that will increase the productivity of all employees.

For the time I have been the representative of this organization, the central slogan has always been “Explore to realize”. This concept is not just about an aerospace organization going to the depths of space and explore, but most importantly, on how to leverage outer space to provide valuated services and products in order to enhance the quality of the life of mankind.

When you think about the outer space, all the value that there is outside is, at the end, part of our system too. It is just an environment that it has not been seen yet. The space we inhabit and the outer space we think of is just a box of everything within. We are working to understand better the relationship between the interspace we inhabit for Japan or the world. Basically, Earth is covered by space. Our Agency stresses adding value to how we conduct research on the space with technologies on hand, rather than simply tries to go as farther away as possible. For JAXA, the most important thing is to better understand the relation between the space and us, thus to figure out ways to benefit from what the space has to offer.

Let me give you a few concrete examples of the benefits. Regarding space technology, we are focused on some of the needs of the aerospace-related industry. We are enhancing the accuracy of space technology, such as photo resolution from images taken from space to the Earth. They are still not as high resolution as they could be. We are making this higher resolution by developing this technology so the photos taken from space can be used for stations by both government organizations and businesses. That is one critical thing that we provide as an added value to human society.

Secondly, we are very good at gathering data and understanding the physics and functionality of the space. However, using this information to create value-added services and products are not something we are specialized in. This is why we team up with strategic partners whom we provide with data and other scientific know-how. They, in turn, develop products and services that embody the very idea of added value. For instance, in the recent increasing trend in automatic driverless cars in different companies it is critical to understand where to position that car within a unit of centimeter. Right now, the current technology is at around 30 centimeters off but to make this safe for the mass market the unit should be no more than a centimeter order. By using space technology that we are developing at this moment, we can increase the accuracy of it.

In another example, we have been working with farmers, who are an important part of the Japanese culture. Farming is very labor intensive, but obviously, the same technology, the same thinking for driverless cars can be applied to agriculture. Machines can automate some of the farmer’s jobs. In order to achieve it, they have to know exactly where your farming machinery is, when to use and when to deploy it. This is where space technology is currently being utilized in Japan.

One final example of real world application of space technology: in 2009 we launched a satellite called GOSAT (Greenhouse gases Observing Satellite). It measures the levels of CO2 within the atmosphere of the entire world. When we actually analyzed this data, we have come to understand that there is a very strong possibility that we will actually be able to monitor man-made CO2 emissions by country. This will enable the international community to effectively apply the agreements, such as the one of COP21 in Paris that requires signatories to report the CO2 emission to the UN. At the moment, there is no way to monitor and verify the reporting. Our technology, if successful, will allow the word to enforce COP21 in a better way.

To sum up, the space technology can be used to help in decision-making processes involving different stakeholders, providing a strong value-added service both for the protection of the environment but also in other economic areas as well.

As I have explained, the accuracy and development of space technology is finally starting to bear fruit for real world applications. JAXA’s mission is to make space a part of the social infrastructure of the Earth. By making this true, by providing value added to real world applications, space exploration can be beneficial to the human race.


JAXA research and innovation for the space exploration has experienced several successes in its short history by bringing products that can be used in the Earth too as the next-gen underwear for astronauts or JAXA's new capacitor, with an uninterruptible power supply, that can be used between -20ºC and 60ºC lasting three times longer than normal batteries. How important is for your funding strategy your spin-offs or the promotion of the JAXA Cosmode? Regarding new products and services, what are JAXA’s most exciting ongoing projects that you would like to share with us?

The commercialization of in-house developed technologies is something very important that we continue to do based on our R&D endeavors. Even up until now, these spin-offs and the commercialization of this kind of R&D is happening, but I would like to really emphasize that we are at a point where our information and understanding of space and R&D will have a broad impact on national governmental or business levels in almost all activities.

We do have policies in place to further develop and increase the number of spin-offs to commercialize products and support our budget. But at the end of the day, the reality is that we are still a majority government funded organization. This is true to this day, but we are working hard to attract large-scale investments from the private sector.

Private firms (e.g. beverage manufacturer, pharmaceutical company) are gradually recognizing the value of 'KIBO' utilization and are beginning to invest in conducting space environment experiment. Our goals when attracting private funds is to lessen national burden as our organization is funded by national taxes and also to be able to develop our relationship with the private sector and enhance the speed of knowledge transfer and commercialization by partners.


Established in 2003 as an independent administrative agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) resulted from the merging of three aerospace organizations. Under Abe-san, a new space policy that places security has set as top priority for the next decade. How has this merger boosted Japan’s efforts in the global aerospace exploration? What are the top three priorities of the new space policy?

JAXA is fully aligned with the Abenomics efforts of Prime Minister Abe to reinvigorate the Japanese economy. A concrete example is the H3 Launch Vehicle, expected to be launched by 2020. It is under development more with commercial use in mind, than for pure scientific purposes. Being able to launch commercial satellites on behalf of the private sector with our rocket is something important for us. We undertake that project by choosing commercial partners we believe that are suitable; then we transfer to them the responsibility for developing the technology based on market trends or commercial applications.

Rather than JAXA developing a spin-off to the commercial sector, the private sector is ultimately involved in the development processes and is responsible for the success of these programs that are shared by both JAXA and the partner. It is a very drastic change in culture to our previous development efforts.


Regarding your relationship with the private sector, how important is it for you to rely on them in order to have a competitive space program? And how important is it for the private sector to have you in order to be competitive towards other companies from countries as China, South Korea or the US?

The new space industries in Japan that are trying to launch their satellites or rockets are cooperating with Japanese manufacturers. They conduct the actual manufacturing and we provide knowledge, expertise and data to help to increase the accuracy and enhance the quality of finished products. We believe that we can support manufacturers by providing the opportunity to be involved in our programs. By providing the information that we have gathered through our extensive understanding in R&D, we increase the international competitiveness while increasing the level of knowledge of these manufacturers at the same time so they can do better in international markets.

Whilst taking more of a long time to see results; now we are seeing examples of a Japanese manufacturer launching commercial satellites manufactured by foreign companies. We can see how the international competitiveness of our Japanese manufacturers is increasing into the level where we are now involved in actually providing the infrastructural support for foreign commercial satellite launching. I think this is a clear sign that our strategy is having some levels of success.


In our conversation with the former Minister of Education of Japan, Hase-san, he emphasized the ministerial efforts to attract talented researchers from overseas to come to Japan with the goal of promoting and fostering development in all fields of intellectual endeavour. To what extent is JAXA interested in attracting talented students and professionals? How are you attracting international talented researchers?

We have just implemented policies to increase the number of foreign researchers and professors coming to JAXA. Most recently, we employed two associate professors on a permanent basis. One is from Romania and the other one from the UK. On a side note, just as in NASA or other space organizations, obviously, the employment of foreign nationals in some aerospace development areas that are considered top secret is limited to Japanese nationals as a matter of national security. However, in unclassified areas, I am very much committed to increasing our talent pool through foreign workers.


With dozens of agreements in place, NASA and JAXA have one of the strongest, most comprehensive and longest lasting bilateral space relationships of any two nations in the world. Could you highlight the main synergies and know-how transfer that have been arising as a result of this relationship?

At the end of September, I visited NASA and met all the executives. We spoke of the current issues we are facing in the industry as a whole, and about our relationship as well. Also, we discussed how to enhance and develop further from the relationship between the agencies.

The culture within our agencies and the values we both have are very similar, and this allows us to work well together. For example, the most critical joint operation we were involved was the International Space [Station]. We also have multiple agreements as you mentioned, like our joint developed satellite called GPM/DPR which basically measures rainfall accurately. Being able to understand the amount of rain turns out to be a very valuable piece of information for governments and for agencies. Objectives and spirit that the two agencies have in common have resulted in a number of projects and thus mutual benefit.

Talking about the historical relations, the current rocket that we are using at the moment is called the H2A rocket, domestically manufactured. Much of Japanese space technology today owes its success to NASA. The robust bond has been formed based on the positive recognition.


While interviewing Takada-san, President of SkyPerfect JSAT Corporation, we talked about their close relationship with providers from the US market as SSL, Lockheed Martin or SpaceX. What is your opinion about the increasing activity of the private sector in the space exploration?

As a space exploration agency for Japan, as long as it is not against the national interest, we will work with private sector partners from whatever country. While I cannot say the exact name of the company, because there are commercial agreements and private information, we are working with companies such as those, who have interest in our technology, and we are working to be able to have some sort of commercial partnership, especially with the United States.


After a long career in Nippon Steel Corporation, and being an executive member of the Council for Science and Technology Policy, you were appointed JAXA’s President in 2013. What do you consider that have been the main achievements of your presidency up until now? If we come back in five years, where would you like JAXA to be?

JAXA is a publicly funded organization. We have always been here to explore the joys of the space, finding out the signs of the space, how further we can go. However, as I said in the very beginning, my top priority is to provide value to human society. Up until now, the information we gathered from space was used as reference by real world stakeholders, but now I think we reached a point where we can increase accuracy, so this information can be used in decision making processes rather than just serving as a reference.

The importance of all the work we do on space exploration is clear especially when you relate it to Japan. As you said, Japan is facing structural issues that are detrimental to the Japanese economy and economic growth. If our technology can help in increasing the productivity of both the country and on per worker basis that will be more than enough to justify our existence and budget.

Finally, when you are involved with space you are involved with all international players and stakeholders. They are very strong, and the ability to develop technologies in partnership with our international stakeholders is something that can mean an impulse for the national relations between countries. All of our activities in space have a direct impact on human race or what happens here on Earth. As we continue to do these partnerships, we should keep further developing the relationship between space and Earth and providing the benefits we can to both: our country and all of the international stakeholders.

We have worked in partnership with JICA, Japan’s overseas development agency. JAXA launched satellites that can basically provide valuable imagery, for examples, for countries under the equator line, the images of their rainforests are tremendously helpful in their fight against the illegal logging of the forests. Protecting the forests is the same as protecting natural resources. By us providing this service in collaboration with JICA, we provide the satellite imagery which will be directed to local government and then stakeholders, being used eventually to stop the illegal logging. Also, the monitoring can be done by local handheld devices as it does not involve use of high-tech heavily. People in charge of areas affected by deforestation do not need as much of huge equipment as you can think of in order to use our images.

When you look at a micro point of view, we are helping to protect the natural resources of certain countries. But when you look at a macro point of view, what we are doing by providing this service, is actually also protecting the Earth’s ability of absorbing CO2 with positive results. We can help with issues within countries and in the bigger [picture], it helps to stop the rise of CO2 on a global basis.

The size of space is infinite, and this is something that has always been available to the human race, but the possibilities of utilizing space for the actual benefit of the real world are also infinite. This is my personal belief and using the infinite possibilities from our knowledge and understandings and applying them to the real world is a critical mission that I would like to achieve during my time here.