Japan, according to multiple media accounts, is very anxious to participate in the burgeoning return to the moon program. The technologically oriented country sees the moon as a means to increase its economic strength as well as build relationships with other countries. Japan is also concerned that China will steal a march by taking possession of the moon’s resources. Thus, Japan is reaching out to NASA to become a partner in that space agency’s return to the moon program and is exploring a joint Sample Return Mission with India, another country that sees itself as a participant in an Asian race to the moon.

Japan could lend its expertise to the Deep Space Gateway

One way Japan may become a partner in a return to the moon could be to lend its technological expertise to the Deep Space Gateway.

The DSG is a proposed space station in cis-lunar space that would serve as a base for exploring the lunar surface. The human-tended facility would serve as a platform for human crews to teleoperate rovers on the lunar surface.

The DSG would also be a way station for transportation to the lunar surface. People and cargo would travel from the Earth to the Deep Space Gateway. Then they would go the rest of the way via reusable lunar landers. A lunar base would refuel the lunar landers using rocket propellant refine from water mined from the moon’s poles. The DSG would also eventually serve as a refueling stop for spacecraft headed for destinations such as Mars.

Joint sample return mission with India

Both Japan and India have already sent space probes to lunar orbit, with the Chandrayaan-1 and the Kaguya (Selene) respectively.

Both countries propose to land on the moon with the Indian Chandrayaan-2 in 2018 and the Japanese JAXA’s Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) in 2019. Teams from India and Japan are also participants in the Google Lunar XPrize with missions due to occur in the first quarter of 2018. A joint sample return mission would be the next step in the two countries’ lunar exploration plans.

China is apparently ahead in the new Asian race to the moon. The Chang’e 1 and Chang’e 2 have already orbited the moon. A couple of years ago, the Chang’e 3 landed on the lunar surface and deployed the Yutu rover. China is planning a landing on the far side of the moon and a sample return mission of its own. Beyond those missions, China proposes landing people to start exploiting the moon’s resources, such as helium 3, a substance that could fuel future fusion power plants. Japan does not propose to be left behind by its Asian rival.