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Why it matters that Japan is going to the moon

In this artist rendering released by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the SLIM (Smart Lander for Investigating Moon) lunar explorer lands on the moon. Japan’s space agency is considering an unmanned mission to the moon by 2018 or early 2019. (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency/AP)

Only three nations have ever soft-landed on the moon – the United States, the Soviet Union and China — and now Japan wants to be the fourth. Japan’s equivalent of NASA – the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) – has established a target date of 2018-2019 for an unmanned moon landing and a 2025 target date for a manned mission to the moon. While there’s the obvious prestige factor for Japan of getting to the moon, the move has another important implication — it could lead to the more rapid exploration of the moon’s commercial potential.

There are enormous innovation benefits from having as many players as possible competing to get back to the moon. More competition means more innovation, especially when you take into account Japan’s rich history as a space-faring nation. If you add Japan’s moon bid to the number of international teams that are competing in the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition, you suddenly have a much richer competitive landscape than if only NASA were trying to get back to the moon.

And that could lead to some truly out-of-the-box ideas that go well beyond the space tourism idea mentioned by JAXA last week. While the chance to view the Northern Lights or a “full Earth-rise” from outer space is a “nice to have,” there are a whole host of other ways that Japan’s innovators could take advantage of the wealth of knowledge gained from Japan’s earlier lunar orbital missions in order to create and build out exciting new commercial concepts.

For example, one moon exploration concept that Japan has floated is a plan to ring the moon with solar panels as a way to power the Earth. The concept — known as LUNA RING — was thought up by Japan’s Shimizu Corporation as a unique way to power the planet with clean energy by the year 2035. A small army of robotic workers would construct a massive ring of solar panels along the 11,000-kilometer lunar equator. These solar panels would capture solar radiation from the sun, transform it into energy, and then beam it back to receiving stations on Earth in the form of microwaves or laser light.

Where would Japan get that lunar robot army? Glad you asked.

Earlier, the Japanese came up with a $2 billion plan to construct a lunar base for hulking, 660-pound robots on the moon’s surface. Originally announced in 2010, this lunar robot idea was projected for the year 2020. Obviously, that’s not going to happen, but the idea of Japanese lunar bots eventually swarming across the moon’s surface in the future is, at the very least, thought-provoking, especially given Japan’s competitive advantage in robotics. At some point, that robot colony would give way to a manned colony (that is, if the robots let us).

And once there’s a permanent manned lunar colony on the moon, that opens up other commercial space exploration opportunities — including a possible trip to Mars or nearby asteroids. For now, the asteroid missions probably are more feasible. JAXA has already taken a ride on an interstellar asteroid and returned the orbital craft safely back to earth. NASA described the legendary Hayabusa mission – in which just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong – as “well beyond remarkable.” And now Japan has a follow-up asteroid explorer mission, known as Hayabusa2.

Even if Japan’s lunar exploration ideas are technologically feasible – and that’s certainly open to debate (hard landings on the moon are much easier than soft landings) – there’s still the pesky matter of cost. A lunar mission could cost $80 million or it could cost $8 billion. Nobody really knows. The Japanese space agency confirmed that a cost target of $126 million was one possibility, but has also confirmed that the price tag could balloon as high as $12 billion. That lunar robot base idea was projected to burn through $2 billion in R&D funding alone, and the development cost of a manned Japanese program could be north of $1 billion.

To make these astronomical costs pay off, Japanese innovators are going to need a truly breakthrough commercial opportunity. This means not just a “one-and-done” mission to the moon, but a series of repetitive missions that can be performed over and over again. Maybe it’s a big idea — a new mineral resources or a new clean energy system – or maybe it’s a smaller idea that can be executed over and over again. That’s why, in many ways, space tourism makes so much sense as an initial first step — who wouldn’t pay to see a “full Earth-rise” from lunar orbit?

And there could be a twist on that space tourism concept that involves people back on Earth. The sole Japanese entry in the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition — Team HAKUTO — is building a series of lunar rovers for traversing the moon’s surface in coordination with fellow XPRIZE competitor Astrobotic, which suggested a “NASCAR on the Moon” scenario as one way to build excitement about getting back to the moon. Imagine unleashing a whole host of these lunar rovers on the surface of the moon, and enabling a live video stream where fans from different nations could cheer on their favorite bots as they hop, crawl or race over the surface of the moon towards a finish line.

A lot has changed in the 40-plus years since the United States last landed a man on the moon. Landing on the moon used to be about superpower prestige, now it’s increasingly about the commercial opportunities. Rapidly growing nations in search of resources and opportunities are teaming up with corporations with the technology know-how to turn science fiction into science fact. With Japan added to the mix, this only heightens the possibility that simply getting to the moon will not become the end-all and be-all of space innovation, but rather the launching point for a new era in space innovation.