- Amid renewed global interest in moon exploration, the carmaking giant has unveiled a road map to develop a vehicle for the country's space agency
- Analysts say the state-of-the-art rover will allow Tokyo to begin exploiting the moon's resources - starting as early as 2029
Japan's largest carmaker has unveiled plans to build a state-of-the-art manned lunar rover as part of the country's bid to take part in a 21st-century space race amid renewed global interest in exploring the moon.
Toyota announced its road map to develop, build and test its rover for Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) on Wednesday, just days before the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing this weekend, and a day after India postponed its ambitious plans to land on the lunar surface because of a technical snag.
It also comes after China recorded a historic first earlier this year by landing its Chang'e spacecraft on the far side of the moon, and as both US state space agency Nasa and a clutch of private companies are looking to establish a research and business presence on Earth's only natural satellite.
JAXA and Toyota's three-year research agreement aims to produced a manned, pressurised lunar rover running on fuel cell technology, which will be able to accommodate astronauts without the need for them to wear spacesuits. The stated aim is for the vehicle to be sent to the moon aboard an American rocket in 2029.
Lance Gatling, a Tokyo-based aerospace analyst, said Japan was interested in exploiting the resources that might be found on the moon.
"Deploying advanced, manned rovers there is all part of the effort to determine what is there, starting with water," he said.
Securing water deposits, or creating the capacity to generate water, "will solve one of the biggest headaches associated with human habitation" on the moon, Gatling said.
JAXA lists 11 Japanese former or active astronauts on its website, but the country has never before developed its own manned rockets or space vehicles, choosing instead to financially back the US space programme for the past three decades.
Then, "out of nowhere, the Chinese came up with their own manned space programme", Gatling said, noting that it had prompted Tokyo to rethink its strategy.
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"This has become a race between the major powers and there is a great deal of national prestige at stake here," he said.
Japan has taken the lead in the Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum, for example, while the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organisation is headquartered in Beijing, with Gatling suggesting the two nations are, "vying for the leadership of agencies in the Asia-Pacific region to develop outer space".
JAXA reported success earlier this month with its Hayabusa2 spacecraft, which landed on an asteroid 250km from Earth for the second time and has recovered samples that experts hope will shed new light on the origins of the universe.
Other programmes that JAXA and private companies in Japan are working on include a spacecraft outfitted with a screen of solar panels measuring nearly 2km across designed to beam limitless energy down to Earth using microwaves, as well as a mooted mission to Mars.
Despite the media excitement that has surrounded Japan's recent announcements, public support in the country for a moon quest may prove to be lacking, according to Jun Okumura, a political analyst at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs.
"People are really preoccupied with problems closer to home " the falling birth rate, the ageing population and so on " and I think it's the same in the US," he said.
"Something like this is obviously going to be extremely costly and I think that most Japanese people will need to be convinced of the utility of the programme if the government wants to drum up significant support."
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