I work on the space side of Mitsui Bussan Aerospace. Specifically, our business involves launching small satellites from Kibo, the Japanese experimental module attached to the International Space Station (ISS) which orbits the earth at an altitude of 400 kilometers.
I’ve loved the idea of robots in space since I was a kid. My dad and I were already building models of the robots from space-themed cartoons when I was three! Things only got worse from there and by the time I got to university, I was studying bipedal robotics, then doing space research at grad school. My specialty wasn’t rockets, though; it was space rovers used for small asteroid exploration. I’m pretty hardcore!
I’m really lucky to have managed to turn my lifelong passion into a job. Though admittedly, space exploration robotics is not exactly what I’m working on.
Launching small satellites from the Kibo module was originally handled by JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, but in 2018, JAXA decided to outsource the service to the private sector. We put in a bid and Mitsui & Co. was selected as the service provider.
When it comes to the size of cubesats, the smallest modules are 10 x 10 x 10 centimeters. This size is referred to as “one unit,” or “1U” for short. You can put several smaller modules together to create a larger one. A 3U model, for instance, would be 10 x 10 x 30 centimeters.
Universities tend to use 1U satellites for research, while the average size for commercial companies is more like 6U. A 1U satellite is small enough to sit comfortably in the palm of your hand. Small satellites like these are opening up new opportunities in space.
What we do is send these satellites up to the ISS in low-earth orbit, then use its robot arm to launch them into space. Our principal responsibilities are customer development, safety testing and shipping the satellites to locations that JAXA requests.
Miniaturization has led to a plunge in the manufacture and launch costs for satellites. That in turn has created all sorts of new business possibilities. For example, there’s an American company that’s put a network of over 100 3U camera-equipped satellites into orbit to provide almost real-time Earth observation. A traditional large satellite could only monitor a specific location on the Earth about once every two weeks. With small satellites, because you can deploy more satellites, you get much higher frequency geospatial data. It’s revolutionary.
Naturally enough, JAXA is expecting Mitsui to add value to its overall business. Our aim is to leverage Mitsui’s globe-spanning network, marketing muscle and creativity to extend the utilization of space to a new and broader audience.
One way we plan to do that is through a one-stop service, covering satellite development, satellite launch, and satellite communication and control from ground stations. If we offer all the necessary services in a convenient bundle, we can help more businesses gain easier access to space.
That’s not all, though. Getting more people and more companies—advertising agencies, food manufacturers and toy companies are examples—to think about incorporating space into their businesses is one aspect of our job. We brainstorm ideas for how a particular sector could use space, approach them with a proposal and create demand that way. We already have several projects that are moving ahead.