Japan puts the Moon on hold

TOKYO - Japan should build an astronomical observatory on the Moon within three decades, but it will have to abandon plans to go it alone in space, and co-operate with other countries, a government advisory panel has said, writes Terry McCarthy.

Less than one week after Japan's first female astronaut, Chiaki Mukai, returned from her 15-day trip on the United States Space Shuttle, Columbia, the Space Activities Commission admitted in a report that plans for Japan to compete with the US by using exclusively Japanese technology are now too costly.

The commission's report, entitled Towards Creation of the Space Age in the New Century, envisions Japan launching a network of satellites around the earth, explorer vehicles to observe the Moon and Mars, and ultimately probes to conduct research of the sun and of the planets in the outer solar system beyond Jupiter: Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. But 25 years after Neil Armstrong told Mission Control in Houston that 'The Eagle has landed', the commission says the first target of an expanded Japanese space programme should be the Moon.

The report says Japan should study the possibility of unmanned exploratory missions, using remote-controlled landing craft and solar-powered vehicles to rove over the Moon's surface. Between 2010 and 2020 a full- scale astronomical observatory could be constructed on the surface of the Moon to peer further into the stars than is possible from the surface of the earth, with its thick, distorting atmosphere. The Ministry of International Trade and Industry, meanwhile, with its more pragmatic approach, has already expressed interest in the possibility of mining minerals on the Moon.

Emboldened by the successful launch in February of the H-2 rocket, the first large space rocket built with Japanese technology, the report says Japan is already equal in some areas with other countries' space programmes. But at the same time it emphasises that the cost of space research is so high that the goals set by a report seven years ago for an entirely self-reliant domestic space programme are now unrealistic. The lunar observatory alone would cost an estimated pounds 43bn. Japan's space agency has an annual budget of pounds 1.25bn. The report also calls for the construction of space platforms in low to medium orbits around the earth to support other space activities.

The report is silent on any military applications of the country's space programme, and the Diet (parliament) has voted against using space for any military purpose. However, a number of military analysts in Japan have begun to say the country should have its own military spy satellites, rather than rely on information passed on by the US.