Just before dawn on February 28, NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) successfully launched a jointly developed scientific satellite, with officials from both agencies and the United States Ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy in attendance. It was not the first time Amb. Kennedy watched a NASA space launch, but rather than spectating from the Florida space center named after her late father, this rocket blasted off from the Tanegashima Space Complex in Southern Japan. The satellite, built at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and launched on a Japanese rocket from an island in Kagoshima prefecture, is part of a mission that is expected to greatly expand meteorologists’ ability to study weather worldwide.
The Global Precipitation Measurement, or GPM, mission is an international effort developed by American and Japanese scientists to observe global precipitation. Prior to this, large areas of the world were not covered by the radar and satellite systems that track rain and snow fall, which hampered meteorologists’ ability to measure Superstorms such as Hurricane Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan. The GPM satellite will expand this coverage to track rain and snow fall over most of the Earth: from the Arctic Circle to the Antarctic. Sophisticated sensors, such as the JAXA-developed radar and NASA-developed radiometer, will allow meteorologists to record both the amount and type of precipitation for a complete global precipitation map every 3 hours. This data will be made openly available to allow people worldwide to better respond to local weather events, while tracking long-term climate changes.
The satellite launch and GPM project is only the latest in the over 40-year history of US-Japan space cooperation. Since 1971, NASA and JAXA have collaborated on a wealth of projects including the Hinode solar observation mission, joint research on missions to Mars and Venus, and were among the founding partners in the International Space Station. US-Japan cooperation in the field is likely to expand in the future, as the governments of both countries have highlighted space as an area for increased scientific and security collaboration. As NASA head Charles Bolden explained when JAXA’s president Naoki Okumura visited Washington DC in July 2013: “We currently have more than 35 active agreements with JAXA in human spaceflight, Earth science, space science, and aeronautics, making Japan one of the agency’s leading partners in civil space cooperation.”