Japan govt eyes sensor to spot resources from space

The government is planning to conduct a feasibility test for a high-precision sensor capable of detecting oil, rare earths and other mineral resources from the International Space Station as early as fiscal 2018, according to sources.

The government plans to eventually mount such sensors, known as hyperspectral sensors, on satellites to secure resource interests in areas such as oil fields and mineral element deposits.

Substances on Earth emit visible rays of light and invisible infrared light by reflecting back sunlight that falls on the planet's surface. These materials have different light wavelengths and light reflection rates, allowing analysis to be conducted so the types of rocks on Earth can be identified. A deeper analysis of rock distribution could help pinpoint areas with potential mineral resources.

Japan and the United States started using a jointly developed sensor mounted on satellites in 1999 for resource exploration, but it was not accurate enough. "We've missed many mineral deposits," an Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry official said. In use for more than 10 years past its lifespan, the accuracy of the sensor has continued to deteriorate.

The industry ministry has therefore spent about ¥16 billion (S$1.9 billion) to develop a new, highly accurate sensor since 2007. The new sensor is expected to be capable of detecting waveforms created from light reflected by materials on Earth with 13 times more accuracy than the existing sensor. The new, improved model would allow underground resources to be detected with greater accuracy.

Japan heavily relies on imports for oil and mineral resources, so securing interests overseas is a vital issue for the nation. Large high-precision sensors are already carried on aircraft to search for resources, but each airborne remote sensing mission is an expensive endeavour. Overseas explorations also require permission from the countries concerned.

Preliminary surveys using satellites therefore appear to be an effective solution. Space-related companies in Japan are looking into ways to make remote sensing devices small and to improve their durability so they can eventually be mounted on satellites.

The existing sensor has been instrumental for Japanese companies and organisations like the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC), which have secured more than 20 mine properties in total.

The United States, Germany and Italy are also aiming to develop next-generation sensors, with Japan currently said to be leading the race. Competition is heating up among the countries to make progress in research and development.

"If Japan develops [the sensor] first, it will help the nation in the battle to secure interests," said Hidekatsu Nakamura, the chief of JOGMEC's exploration technique development section.