TOKYO - Established and emerging Japanese companies are strengthening their businesses related to the space industry.
The development of satellites and space rockets once required large expenditures and advanced technological skills, but lowering production costs have made it easier for more companies to enter the market.
While demand from the private sector is growing in the United States and Europe, and China is intensifying its national space projects, Japan has lagged behind. In an effort to catch up, private companies in Japan are expected to play a more active role to advance the domestic space industry.
Mitsubishi Electric Corp. is focusing on a standard satellite platform - the basis of satellites used for functions such as telecommunications and surveillance. In accordance with requests from clients, satellites based on the platform can flexibly perform various functions. Satellite developers do not need to manufacture original platforms for each order, thereby making it possible to lower prices and hasten delivery.
Mitsubishi Electric has set a goal to increase sales from its space development businesses, including satellites, by 50 per cent from fiscal 2015 to ¥150 billion (S$2 billion) in fiscal 2020.
NEC Corp. is also developing a standard platform that can be used in satellites for map making, forest fire prevention and other purposes.
Emerging companies are also increasing their presence in the space industry. Technological innovations have enabled manufacturers to assemble satellites using commercially available parts.
A source in the industry said, "In the past 10 years, costs have fallen by more than 50 per cent."
Axelspace Corp., an emerging company based in Tokyo, develops microsatellites for the private sector. The development of large satellites weighing several tons can cost tens of billions of yen, but Axelspace's satellites are small and low-priced, weighing 100 kilograms or less and costing under a billion yen.
They aim to begin a service that will provide satellite images at much lower prices than conventional services, starting in fiscal 2018.
Observation data from satellites made by the company can be used in a wide range of fields, including agriculture and tourism.
Interstellar Technologies Inc., a Hokkaido-based company established by Takafumi Horie, former president of Livedoor Co., has put small rockets into practical use and plans to launch microsatellites using the rockets.
According to the Society of Japanese Aerospace Companies, total sales in the global space industry rapidly rose from about $240 billion in 2010 to about $320 billion in 2015.
In the United States and Europe, private-sector demand in the space industry is growing, but in Japan sales are mainly from government projects. The government's severe fiscal condition means the budget for space development projects is limited - the nation's total sales have remained almost unchanged at about ¥300 billion a year.
The situation is in stark contrast to China, which has rapidly implemented manned space flights and satellite launches in national space projects.
However, Tomoya Saida of the Japan Research Institute said: "Japan does not lag behind in terms of technology. Fresh ideas and challenges to utilize the technology for businesses are necessary."
The Japan International Aerospace Exhibition 2016, a business exhibition of aerospace and space industries held in Tokyo through Oct. 15, featured the largest number of participants in the event's history - 800 - indicating growing enthusiasm in the domestic market.
Space development projects by private companies have hurdles to clear, such as how to shoulder the burden of risk from launch failures.
There is no clearly established business model in the field yet, but the opportunity seems ripe for Japan to regain its position in the global space industry