The UK Daily Mail is reporting that the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has proposed that Japan mount an effort to land an astronaut on the moon by 2030. The effort would likely be part of an international effort. The proposal was probably made in response to an announcement by Japan’s Asian rival China to land astronauts on the moon, also by 2030.

An Asian space race to the moon

A number of Asian countries have sent robotic probes to the moon during the current century. China has sent two probes, Chang’e 1 and Chang’e 2, into lunar orbit and a lander, Chang’e 3, on the lunar surface with a rover called Yutu.

China plans to land on the far side of the moon in 2018 and to mount a sample return mission from the lunar surface. India has sent a probe, Chandrayaan-1, into lunar orbit and plans to launch the Chandrayaan-2, which will include an orbiter, a lander, and a rover, in 2018. Japan has placed the Kaguya in lunar orbit and is planning a follow-up mission that will include an orbiter, lander, and rover.

All three countries have expressed an interest in developing the moon for its resources. Such resources include platinum group metals, helium-3, which can be used to fuel future fusion reactors, and water, to be used for lunar colonies and rocket fuel.

Why does Japan want to land a person on the moon?

Clearly, Japan, along with a number of other countries, has decided that having a space exploration program is a critical part of being a great power.

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The exploration of the moon, including landing people, is the clearest expression of such activities where enhancing national prestige is concerned. The United States proved that principle beyond all doubt during the Apollo moon missions in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The advance of technology and the economic imperative for lunar missions have inspired even smaller nations such as Japan to aspire to shoot for the moon.

How does Japan mean to get to the moon?

Japan does not intend to do a lunar mission by itself, an undertaking that would be beyond its capacity. The country would like to join an international coalition with enough coming to the table so that a Japanese astronaut would be included in the first mission. Possible partners include India, the European Union, Russia, and The United States. Indeed, the JAXA proposal can be seen as a signal to the Trump administration to get moving with the back to the moon effort that it is rumored to be mulling.

Another possibility would be for Japan to partner with commercial companies such as SpaceX or Blue Origin to mount a lunar effort. Both companies are developing heavy lift rockets, the Falcon Heavy and the New Glenn respectively. Both are also developing landing technology, the Red Dragon, and the Blue Moon. Japan could outsource much of its lunar effort to the private sector in that case.