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Report on a Visit to Tsukuba Space Center, JAXA

With the Japanese made experimental facility “kibo”, scheduled to be launched on June 13th 2009, just three days on; and the world preparing for the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 mission this July, much of the technology magazines, including IEEE spectrum, had been coerced into devoting featured articles to the future of space industry, for their June’s issue. By the same token, the timing and atmosphere was just perfect for this June’s factory study tour to JAXA, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency at Tsukuba.

Located at the north of Tokyo in the Ibaraki prefecture, and being best known as the location of Tsukuba Science City, Tsukuba enjoys a reputation for housing scores of research institutes. During the bus ride to Tsukuba, which took us about an hour and a half, we initially passed through some of Tokyo’s well-known districts, including Asakusa, but were soon out in the rampant Japanese country-sides, of which Ibaraki prefecture, being a major producer of various crops, boasts a lot.

Upon our arrival at Tsukuba Space Center (TKSC), we were welcomed by a full-scale model of H-IIA Japan’s main launch vehicle, responsible for delivering satellites and supplies into space. The 50m tall gigantic model, which had its pair of so-called “SRB-A” Slid Rocket Boosters attached to either sides, was laid horizontally at the entrance to the space center.

H-IIA Japan’s main launch vehicle

H-IIA Japan’s main launch vehicle 2

We were then led to a small sort of lobby with a few seats and a TV screen, not surprisingly showing views of the vast and abyss space. One by one, after having our passports and IDs checked by the staff at a close-by office room in front of the lobby, we headed to the next-door room, again sort of a lobby but a bit larger than the previous one and with a couple of small round tables at the center. Each table had a number of chairs put around it and also a computer, which was logged into JAXA’s Internet website.

The second lobby had all its walls covered by colorful posters of JAXA’s past and future programs. Of all the items, those related to “kibo” easily stood out. Indeed, the pictures of the two gigantic cylindrical sections with the smaller one (Experimental Logistics Module – Pressurized section) lying in a vertical position on top of the other (Pressurized module), and a planar set of equipment attached to their side (Exposed Facility), continued to pretty much dominate the atmosphere of the visit. On a farther corner of the room, small models of the H-II (the satellite launch system which preceded H-IIA), SELENE (SELenological and ENgineering Explorer, world’s largest lunar mission since the Apollo program), as well as ALOS (Advanced Land Observing Satellite), with the long solar paddle that was protruding from its right side, were all put delicately in cubic, glass boxes, one beside another.

After spending a quarter or so in the second room we were led out to the open-air area outside the so-called Public Relations/Information Building to spend another 15 minutes walking around, talking, and taking photos. We then moved to a lecture room at that same building, where we watched a movie, introducing us to JAXA as a whole and Tsukuba space center in particular. The movie was mostly presented by Takao Doi, the first Japanese Astronaut to conduct a space walk. He was also a crewmember of the March 2008 space shuttle mission, which delivered the first module of “kibo” to the ISS. 530,000 square meters wide, and with 1700 employed staff, JAXA’s Tsukuba Space Center (TKSC) was established in 1972, to be the center of Japan’s space network. TKSC houses a variety of equipment that facilitates the investigations into the future of space development. The range of activities in TKSC include Acoustic vibration test facility to investigate the potential harmful effects of the extremely loud sound waves produced as a following each lunch, checking the interference effects generated as a result of each launch on the Satellite Antenna, investigation into the development of enhanced space suit and chambers used for extra vehicular activities such as space walks, which are supposed to operate perfectly, while being exposed to space’s harsh environmental conditions with zero-gravity and temperature range of 100oC in the sunlight to -100oC at dark, and last but not least basic research into future space development and further understanding of the phenomena such as radiation and particles emitted from the sun.

Also worth mentioning, is the Weightless Environment Test System, which uses a large-scale pool, 16m wide and 10.5m deep, to create a weightless environment that offers astronaut training and performance check of extravehicular activities with space suits.

JAXA’s Tsukuba Space Center also houses the main tracking and control center for Advanced Land Observing Satellite (ALOS), as well as the Mission Control Center and test facilities for International Space Station’s Japanese Experimental Module, “kibo”. R&D into future space food, as well as wideband satellite-based/internet-based communication networks, which offer a disaster proof, highly reliable, fast communication system, are amongst other interesting space development projects which Japan is highly committed to when it comes to space exploration.

When the movie was over, we got on the bus, set for TKSC’s Exhibition Room. The first thing that came to our sight upon arrival at the museum was the full-scale models of the giant SELENE and ALOS satellites, with some other perhaps less impressive (at least as far as their sizes were concerned) satellite models further ahead. The lady who was guiding us throughout the visit explained that the huge lunar explorer called SELENE is comprised of one main orbiter and two other smaller satellites, as well as 17 observation equipment, which are aimed at obtaining scientific data regarding the origins of the moon and its evolution, as well as developing the technology for future lunar explorations. Interestingly enough, the day of our visit had coincided with the end of the main orbiter’s mission through its controlled impact on the lunar surface. Only to be replaced a week later by NASA’s unmanned moon probe, which has already touched the lunar surface at the time of writing this report (06/24/2009). All these show how much this object of old fascinations is still on the spotlight, and will remain to be so for years to come, not least as the best adornment to the freckled face of the night sky.

Further ahead on the left side of the hall, we could see the 1/20 scale models of Japan launch vehicles from the 1975 N-I rocket, to the latest H-IIB, which is yet to have its first launch in September this year. In front of the rocket models and on the other side of the hall two real rocket engines have been put on display. They were the Japanese made rocket engines LE-7 and LE-5. The former, which was the larger of the two, is responsible for the provision of the thrust, necessary to the vehicle’s movement throughout the first stage of the launch. The latter takes the charge after the first stage is cut off and separated. LE-5 will then lead the payload, until it is injected into a geostationary transfer orbit.

Japan's launch vehicles

We then came across a set of posters, which bore effigies of JAXA’s 8 astronauts included there was also the familiar face of Takao Doi, whom we came to know through the video played at the beginning of the visit. Three of the eight astronauts, we were told to have visited ISS, and one (Wakata Koichi) was currently on-board there. The guide went on to explain that the astronauts’ education, aimed at preparing them for the crucial tasks ahead, includes one-and-a-half year of basic training in Japan followed by complementary periods in the United States and Russia. Physical health, engineering knowledge and capabilities, as well as the ability to engage in effective cooperative behavior with other people of different nationalities, were cited as determinant factors in the selection of future astronauts from potential candidates.

The right end of the exhibition room was devoted to the items related to ISS, including the Japanese Experimental Module, “kibo”. At the right corner, under the massive cylindrical body, which was the model for the “Pressurized Module” of the JEM (Japanese Experimental Module), we could see a small-scale model of ISS in its completed form, and put in a clear case. The largest-ever artificial satellite to orbit the earth, ISS, is being built as a joint project amongst the space agencies of 15 participating countries. The construction, which kicked off in 1998, is scheduled to be completed by 2011. Due to its large size various sections were made into pieces and reassembled after being transported to space through launch vehicles.

Next to the ISS model and in a smaller glass box was a mockup for the “kibo”, which as Japan’s first human space facility, is going to enhance the unique research capabilities of ISS. Kibo has five major constituents, which are the Pressurized Module (PM), Exposed Facility (EF), Experiments Logistic Module-Pressurized Section (ELM-PS), Experiments Logistic Module-Exposed Section (ELM-ES), and last but not least the Remote Manipulator System.

First and foremost, the Pressurized Module is not only the largest and most visible part of JEM, but also constitutes the cornerstone of kibo’s components. The cylindrically shaped structure, whose pressurized interior is maintained at one atmosphere, provides a shirt-sleeve environment for the ISS crew to perform experiments, robotic operation, voice communication with the ground, and maintenance activities. The two Experiments Logistic Modules are, as suggested by their names, used to store experiment equipment, and while the pressurized one provides a place, where facilities can be kept safe from the harsh space environment, the unprotected exposed section can instead receive supplies that are launched from the Earth. The exposed facility can be exploited to perform experiments that are fully exposed to the space environment. The Japanese Experiment Module Remote Manipulator System supports all these experiments, as well as kibo’s own maintenance tasks. We were then able to actually mount inside and speculate the Pressurized Module’s interior for ourselves. Perhaps the most interesting feature to be observed was the presence of multiple Payload racks each of which devoted to one area of science, life, or technology. These include the –80oC Laboratory for experiments in harsh freezing conditions, fluid physics experimental facility, solution crystallization observation facility, protein crystal growth research facility, gradient heating furnace, cell biology experiment facility, etc.

inside the Pressurized Module

Next we visited the Space Station Test Building, where the whole system examinations of “kibo” were conducted. Close to the entrance a pair of space clothes in red and white inside glass cases, were put on display. Moreover, posters of the kibo, whose last launch originally due on June the 13th, was postponed till July due to problems with shuttle endeavor’s leaking hydrogen tanks, were all over the place. The ELM-PS and PM have already been launched and installed onboard the ISS, during the past two shuttle missions by shuttle Endeavor in March 2008, and shuttle Discovery in May 2008, respectively. The latter launch also had the Remote Manipulator System on its board. Although the actual kibo components had all been transferred to Kennedy space center, at the time of our visit we could still see real-life test models of the pressurized module through the 4 glass widows that were opened into the Space Station Test area. Other facilities included the H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV), which using the H-IIB launch vehicle has the ability to deliver up to 6-ton supplies of goods to ISS and bring back used items. Also visible were models of advanced TDRS (Tracking and Data Relay Satellite) and JAXA’s DRTS (Data Relay test Satellite), which will facilitate the operation of kibo and ISS by providing space communications.

The final destination of that day’s tour, and also the one with the highest security, was the “kibo mission control room”, where real-time operations of kibo are observed round-the-clock, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. The Mission Control System is also used to communicate with the astronauts onboard the ISS, and to contact NASA and other space agencies from participating countries.

Concluding the study tour was a PowerPoint presentation, by one of JAXA staffs, who was personally involved in the launch and rocket design activities. The presentation which was followed by a Q&A session, elaborated further on various aspects of Japan’s future and on-going space programs. Amongst the discussed issues was the organization of JAXA, which working under MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) was officially created in 2003, as a consolidation of ISAS (Institute of Space and Astronautical Science), NAL (National Aerospace Laboratory of Japan), and NASDA (National Space Development Agency of Japan). He then went on to explain about Japan’s two launch facilities at Tanegashima and Kagoshima. The effect of proximity to equatorial regions in enhancing launch’s initial thrust was mentioned as a factor in the country’s choice of its launch sites. Further comments were made on the small and compact nature of the Tanegashima Space Center, which is the newer and more prominent of the two, and it was stated that occupying a small portion of Tanegashima Island, if we compare its size to Kennedy Space Center, the latter has a size in the order of the whole Island. This and other facts highlighted throughout the lecture pointed toward the underfunding problem, which has hindered Japan’s space development ambitions. Further explanations were devoted to the development of Japan’s Rocket industry, starting from the American N-series Rockets in 1975, until finally the H-II Rockets were developed in 1990s using fully Japanese equipment. Japan’s current launch vehicle (H-IIA), which had fulfilled 14 out of its total 15 lunches successfully, is going to be superseded by H-IIB, which can be used to ship larger and heavier payloads into space. The major enhancements include the addition of 2 extra strap-on SRB-A, for a total of four, as well as exploitation of 2 clustered engines, all of which will help boost the rocket’s thrust, which would eventually enable the rockets to be used for launching multiple satellites simultaneously, thus cutting on the costs. Due to the soaring fuel prices in Japan, and the cheap launches offered by Russian ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles), faster and more powerful rockets which can cut on the launch costs by saving fuel, we were told to be fundamental to the sustainability of Japan’s future launches.

Q&A Session

By the time the Q&A session was over, the TKSC’s souvenir shop had already been closed, and so a bit disappointed we headed back for the bus. On the way to Ookayama campus and before leaving Tsukuba, we had a nice ride through the city, including its main square, a major shopping mall, and a nearby subway station. Hirose-sensei, having worked in one of the city’s research facilities in the early and mid 1990s, knew much about the city; and was trying to convey to us Tsukuba’s dominant atmosphere of research and science, as he commented on various locations that we drove past.