Japan's ambitious plans for space exploration are being squeezed by efforts to shrink the country's ballooning budget deficit. Last week, an advisory committee to the Science and Technology Agency (STA) signed off on $700 million in cuts over the next 6 years--most importantly, killing a robotic space plane and reducing the scope of a lunar mission scheduled for 2003. But the committee, whose views reflect a government consensus, protected several planned Earth-monitoring missions that are expected to boost the country's status in global environmental research.
The biggest savings will come from axing an unmanned space shuttle called HOPE, which was planned by the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA) to ferry supplies to the International Space Station. Instead, the agency will try to upgrade a small experimental version of the spacecraft. The decision will not affect Japan's overall contributions to the International Space Station.
Budgetary pressures have also doomed a lander planned for Japan's Selenological and Engineering Explorer (SELENE), a joint mission to the moon by NASDA and the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS). The SELENE mission will map the moon's far surface and study its magnetic properties. "We're trying hard to minimize the effect on the science," says Hitoshi Mizutani, an ISAS planetary scientist, about cuts totaling more than a fourth of the mission's original $320-million price tag.
One area conspicuously spared the ax is Earth observation. NASDA's plans to launch three Earth-observing satellites by 2002 were largely untouched by the budget pruning. Keizo Fuji, assistant director of STA's space policy division, says this is a reflection of the importance attached to environment-related research.