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Reaching for the stars - the story of NEC’s space technology

Hayabusa’s epic journey spanned six billion kilometers and lasted seven years. Launched in May 2003, it reached its destination — an asteroid called Itokawa — two years later in 2005. It took pictures, collected data, and finally landed on the surface of the asteroid itself. On its return to Earth in June 2010, it was an instant hit in Japan, spawning films. Even today, many people still remember this event as a defining moment in their lives. The dazzling success of Hayabusa shone a spotlight on NEC’s space technology, which played an integral role in the mission. As the project participant responsible for systems integration, NEC was there right from the beginning, making a critical contribution to the project’s success.

Results Achieved from the Development and Operation of the Asteroid Probe MUSES-C (HAYABUSA)

The MUSES-C (HAYABUSA) is the first asteroid probe to have landed on a celestial body beyond the earth’s atmosphere that is further out than the Moon and to have brought samples back to Earth. NEC coordinated the MUSES-C project, and it was in overall charge of the design, manufacture, testing and operations of the entire system as well as of much of the payload equipment, including the bus components and the ion powered navigation engines.

HAGINO Shinji(NEC Technical Journal Vol.6 No.1 April, 2011)

But Hayabusa is only the most well-known example of NEC’s space technology. It is far from the only one. NEC’s technology is playing a key role in every aspect of Japanese space development — such as the Kibo Japanese Experiment Module on the International Space Station and the Akatsuki Venus Climate Orbiter, which was the first Japanese space probe to be successfully inserted into the orbit of a planet other than the Earth — in this case, Venus — to name just a few of the more recent ones.

Development of the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM), KIBO for the International Space Station

Japan has developed its first manned space facility by completing the Japan Experiment Module (JEM), KIBO for the International Space Station. In this development, NEC was in charge of systems including the Inter-orbit Communication System and Robot Arm System as well as the JEM Control Processor, various experiment devices and the Operations Control System.

KUWAO Fumihiro ・OTSUKA Akiko ・TANAKA Takahiko ・KUMAGAI Hiroki ・TAKEGAI Tomoki ・SHIMIZU Motomitsu
(NEC Technical Journal Vol.6 No.1 April, 2011)

Development of the Venus Climate Orbiter PLANET-C (AKATSUKI)

Launched successfully on May 21, 2010, PLANET-C (AKATSUKI) is Japan’s first inner planet exploration spacecraft. Although it failed in the Venus orbit insertion mission, it is still continuing the flight and it is now targeting a successful insertion attempt in six years’ time. This paper introduces the system design of the PLANET-C explorer and its associated technologies.

OSHIMA Takeshi ・SASAKI Tokuhito
(NEC Technical Journal Vol.6 No.1 April, 2011)

* After six years, Akatsuki finally achieved successful insertion on December 9, 2016.

The beginning of NEC’s space technology development

Cover of NEC No. 36 (February 1958), NEC’s Technical Journal at the time

Of course, none of this happened overnight. In fact, to see where NEC took its first step into the field of space technology, we have to go all the way back to the 1950s when an international scientific project called the International Geophysical Year (IGY) was initiated to open up a new era of scientific collaboration. Starting on July 1, 1957, scientists in countries around the world undertook observations related to the Earth, which kicked off the “Space Race” between the United States and the Soviet Union. Japan, too, was an active participant in the IGY, with its own rocket development program underway. The most prominent Japanese scientist involved in the program was Dr. Hideo Itokawa of the Institute of Industrial Science at the University of Tokyo. It was Dr. Itokawa, for whom 25143 Itokawa — the asteroid visited by Hayabusa — was named.

In 1956, NEC delivered a telemetry* transmitter-receiver system to the University Tokyo’s Institute of Industrial Science for incorporation in the Kappa rocket developed by Dr. Itokawa. It was the first NEC product to go into space.

* Technology that conducts remote observation and data collection.

NEC has always been in step with Japanese space development

From its start in the 1950s, NEC’s space communications technology progressed rapidly, finally bearing fruit in 1964 with a momentous achievement of international significance.

1964 was the year that the XVIII Summer Olympic Games were held in Tokyo — the first time the Olympics had been held in Asia. For Japan, the Tokyo Olympics marked the country’s return to the world stage and showed how much it had accomplished in its postwar reconstruction. The whole country shared in the excitement. And — thanks to the fact that television images of the games were transmitted around the world for the first time via communications satellite — so did the world. This epoch-making event forever changed the world. Today, we take it for granted that we can watch the Olympics — or any other event — live on TV no matter where in the world it is taking place. But at the time this was a truly epoch-making event and NEC’s space communications technology played a pivotal role in the success of that first satellite broadcast.

From the pages of NEC No. 68 (December 1964)

he worldwide TV broadcast of the Tokyo Olympics via Syncom 3 was a brilliant success. All the components of the space communications system — including the Kagoshima Ground Station’s parabolic antennas, drivers, transmitters, and NEAC-series computers that performed complex calculations to capture the satellite — were NEC products. NEC’s products were also critical in the trans-Pacific cable system that transmitted audio. Using this technology, live images of the Olympic games were sent by the space communications system to the Point Mugu Air Station in California. Then they were sent all over the United States and Canada and then on to Europe.

Since then, NEC’s space technology has continued to evolve in tandem with Japan’s space development.
In 1970, what would be Japan’s first satellite was delivered to the University of Tokyo. Following its successful launch, the satellite was named Osumi after the peninsula where the launch site was located. With the launch of Osumi, Japan took its place among the space-faring nations as the fourth country to put a satellite in orbit, after the Soviet Union, the United States, and France.

In 1977, the first Japanese Geostationary Meteorological Satellite (GMS) was launched at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. This satellite was successfully inserted into geostationary orbit and was named Himawari. Again, NEC was a key player in the development of this satellite — which would become the best known satellite in Japan today because of its use for daily weather forecasting — as well as the development of its tracking and control system.
These are just a few examples of NEC’s contribution to Japan’s space development. You can get the full story and all the details on the innumerable contributions NEC has made over the years in the following paper.

NEC’s 30 Years of Space Activities and Recent Satellite Programs

As a prime contractor, NEC has integrated 47 satellites in 30 years. That accounts for about two-thirds of the whole spacecraft market in Japan. NEC has been acting as the leading company in the Japanese space program.

NEC Research & Development Vol.42 No.2 (4, 2002)

The history of space exploration is not just a story of constant progress and success. There have been many failures along the way. And NEC has encountered its fair share. But despite these obstacles, NEC’s engineers have never slackened in their determination to surmount even the most daunting challenges, and that is what has led to the company’s remarkable achievements from the dawn of space exploration until today.

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