Space Startups in Japan Take on a Bigger Role

24 August 2023

Japanese version: 1 June 2023

Atsushi Uchida
Frontier Technology Division


  • Space startups can now make it to the moon with just their own funds
  • New ventures have come to handle big chunks of national space programs
  • Japan can expand the role of its startups by providing opportunities for collaboration with major space businesses

An attempt at a world’s first and the possibilities it points to

Japanese startup ispace’s lunar lander lifted off from a launchpad in the US on 11 December 2022 and attempted to touch down on the moon in the predawn hours of 26 April 2023. Landing on the moon, an object that exerts a gravitational force of its own, is a feat that only half the six countries that have tried*—the US, Russia, and China—have been able to pull off, and they needed state-backed programs to do it.

ispace’s shot at it was unfortunately unsuccessful, but if it had succeeded it would have been the world’s first moon landing by a private entity. That a startup founded in 2010 could take on such a challenge, financing it solely with funding procured on its own, and come within inches of pulling the feat off, is itself an indicator of the possibilities inherent in expanding the role of startups in Japan’s space programs.

*The United States, Russia, China, Israel, India, and Japan (in order of their landing attempts)

Startups shoulder roles in national space initiatives

In the US, Elon Musk’s SpaceX broke into the market for launching satellites, previously the exclusive turf of major corporations. Now the leading satellite launch provider worldwide*, it has also built Starlink, a communications network using over 4,000 satellites. Given that it was set up about 20 years ago, its scale, and the role it now plays, SpaceX can hardly be characterized as a startup anymore; but we have undoubtably entered an age when young ventures shoulder roles in national space programs, such as the US National Reconnaissance Office using satellite images provided by fledgling firms.

Japan’s space startups have been multiplying rapidly since around 2018, and there are over 801 of them as of October 2022. Their ranks are swelling on government grants to cover the business risks related to space and opportunities to carry out trials in space, though one capable of undertaking some aspect of Japan’s activities in space has yet to emerge. Japanese space initiatives—largely new and novel such as clean-up missions to remove space debris from orbit—are growing in number and scale.

The days are over when only a limited number of large conglomerates could manage the entirety of a nation’s space programs. The time has come to think about how to expand the role that startups, too, can play in Japan’s space endeavors.

*Global commercial satellites and US military satellites

SpaceX is aiming to put a total of some 30,000 satellites into orbit

Helping startups play a bigger role

There was a time when observers would contrast the roles of space majors and startups by characterizing one as “old space” and the other, “new space”; but the situation has changed. We believe that, going forward, to enhance startups’ capabilities what is needed are opportunities for both those deemed “old” and “new” to collaborate together.

Until recently, most investment in Japan’s space startups came from major corporations in other fields seeking to launch new business lines. But in February 2023, collaboration between established majors and startups got going in earnest with the announcement of a Mitsubishi Electric Corporation investment in and collaboration with Astroscale Holdings Inc. The landscape in the US and Europe started shifting several years ago from a competitive one to a complementary one in which space-business majors target space startups for investment and collaborate with them to do things like uncovering new technologies.

Japan seems to be a bit behind the curve in this area, so we think it’s time for it to consider ways of fostering a space-business ecosystem that gets startups, with their propensity to multiply, involved in its space adventures.

Works Cited

1Spacetide Compass, Vol. 7. Spacetide Foundation, October 2022