Yokogawa × Space [Part1]
― The theme of this interview is “Yokogawa develops space by leveraging its solutions to the SDGs.” Yokogawa’s mid-term business plan includes disaster prevention and preparedness, space, and oceans as areas for exploration. Some people are surely wondering why Yokogawa suddenly targeted space. Mr. Uchida, you were involved in drawing up the business plan and are conducting research on space at the Innovation Center. Could you briefly explain why Yokogawa is looking at space?
As the world’s population grows, food and energy shortages are accelerating, threatening to disrupt society. This is driving the exploration of space and the oceans as the final frontiers. There is also a strong incentive: as exemplified by NASA’s Artemis program, several nations are actively aiming to explore and develop the lunar surface and orbit. On this occasion, energy systems need to become more cyclical and sustainable.
We didn’t suddenly turn to space. In fact, Yokogawa’s involvement in space projects dates back to 1962, only five years after the launch of the Sputnik satellite. We have been involved in space since the early days of exploration. For example, Yokogawa delivered an instrument for measuring the ionosphere for NASA’s spacecraft. As Yokogawa becomes increasingly involved in the business of sustainability, we will need to develop solutions that support the sustainability of Earth and humankind. Our current approach is to use space as a testbed for verifying such solutions.
We will make full use of space through two approaches: develop space by looking at it as a “place,” and use it as a “space.” Regarding space development, the lunar surface is not only a reserve of natural resources but also a site for production. Yokogawa aims to participate and assist this exploration from an early stage. Regarding space utilization, we can use the data obtained in space to expand our activities on Earth. Such data include measurements of Earth from space and experiments under microgravity in space, with the latter being useful in the life sciences. Through these involvements, we will raise the reputation of Yokogawa in society and enhance the engagement of stakeholders including employees and shareholders.
― What is Yokogawa doing in these two areas?
Regarding space utilization, we are conducting research and development on using remote sensing data obtained from satellites and improving the operations of industries on Earth. We are also using space as a “place.” Life science experiments conducted on the Kibo module on the International Space Station (ISS) have used Yokogawa’s products.
― How about space development?
Yokogawa is exploring promising areas where it can contribute, such as establishing a supply chain to build production facilities on the Moon and exploring a major resource on the Moon – water.
― The Space Business Development Office is working on expanding Yokogawa’s main business, industrial automation (IA), into space and making it profitable, isn’t it?
That’s right. Yokogawa has been involved in the space business for a long time, and our measuring instruments have been used in space facilities and space experiments of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The market has now expanded greatly with the Artemis program and other projects. NASA’s private utilization program has led to the development of a business area called New Space, in contrast to Old Space. Old Space means the development and utilization of space by relying on government budget. New Space is being led by private companies, and this is expanding greatly. To make the most of this opportunity, the Space Business Development Office was established in September 2021.
Technologies used in space are not developed from scratch; they are already being used in R&D departments on Earth. However, they need to be refined to work in space where they are subject to zero gravity and cosmic rays. It is also necessary to go through huge amounts of complicated administrative procedures such as obtaining approvals, examining and concluding contracts, and managing orders, which is quite a burden for R&D departments. Therefore, our office handles the paperwork and provides an environment where R&D departments can concentrate on their core business.
― I understand that your office allows R&D departments to concentrate on research. Mr. Azuma, you are already conducting collaborative research with external parties. Could you tell us about it?
JAXA plays a central role in life science research in space, collaborating with private companies and research institutes. In Kibo, the Japanese experiment module in the ISS, various technologies in the fields of life science and biomedicine are being developed in conditions completely different from those on Earth, such as microgravity, high vacuum, and cosmic rays. Various research has been conducted using animals, which clarified phenomena of life and expanded manned space activities. Research has now advanced further and experimental subjects have shifted to living cells. These experiments include research on the gravity-sensing mechanism to understand how cells sense and make use of gravity, and research on regenerative medicine. For these experiments, it is necessary to observe dynamic changes in the three-dimensional structure of living cells in the space environment. So, a microscope system called the COSMIC live imaging system was installed in Kibo in 2020.
― What is the system like?
COSMIC is a microscope system developed by Chiyoda Corporation for space experiments, and it functions as a confocal microscope, which is widely used for three-dimensional observation of cellular tissues. The confocal scanner, the core of the confocal microscope, uses Yokogawa’s CSU-W1 confocal scanner unit. The CSU-W1 can observe the behavior of living cells at high speed and high resolution for a long time.
― I’m sure the original developers never imagined this product would be taken into space.
Absolutely. Today, Yokogawa’s confocal technology is widely used in the latest biology research and drug discovery. This track record has motivated some scientists to use the CSU-W1 in space.
― I understand that even if research and development is not specifically for space, its applications could extend to space.Mr. Shiratsu, what do you think of the possibility of applying Yokogawa’s other technologies to space development?
Unfortunately, it was difficult for Yokogawa’s IA business to get involved in space development. However, the discovery of water on the Moon has changed things; a clear need to produce hydrogen and oxygen from water has emerged. In addition, the surface of the Moon could be used for building factories, which is a promising business opportunity for Yokogawa.
― Could you be more specific?
The Space Business Development Office is working on various targets. One of the IA targets is to develop private companies to explore the Moon. The ultimate goal is to establish a plant business there. Does that seem unrealistic? There are two compelling facts. First, huge amounts of money, totaling 3 trillion yen in 5 years, are pouring into the Artemis program alone. The second is the discovery of water. It is not in a liquid state but in an icy state called water ice.
Several countries including the U.S. and Japan are sending probes to locate promising water sources by remote sensing. This search is meaningful for academic progress and water is vital for business on the Moon. The electrolysis of water produces hydrogen and oxygen, which can be used as a source of rocket fuel. Another possible source of energy on the Moon is the strong sunlight; it is ideal for generating electricity. However, what can be done at night? One solution is to generate electricity during the daytime and use this power to electrolyze water. The resulting hydrogen can be stored and used to generate electricity during the night. Water on the Moon has great potential in a variety of ways. The Gateway project aims to explore Mars and deep space beyond the Moon, and it is more sensible to produce fuel for rockets on the Moon rather than transport it from Earth. Water is available and there is strong demand, which is driving many countries to try to turn water ice into hydrogen and use it. This is becoming a major incentive for industry.
As I said earlier, several countries are trying to locate water ice. However, from a business perspective, simply securing water is not enough; you need to consider the cost of mining and determine the viability as a business. To obtain useful information for industry, Yokogawa is working together with a plant engineering company and a space start-up to prepare to explore the Moon. We aim to build a track record as a space company through lunar exploration. By flying a probe to the Moon and sensing various objects, we can understand the lunar conditions more precisely. Yokogawa specializes in measurement, control, and information, which are all necessary for building a plant. Hydrogen plants require measurement and control, and an information-based management system must be set up to operate a value chain efficiently under various constraints. Through this exploration project, we hope to gain knowledge of the Moon and the equipment to be used there, and thus to win a plant project on the Moon. Currently, IA is Yokogawa’s largest business, and we are trying to develop it on the Moon as well.
― I understand that Yokogawa has a solid background in the space business. How is the joint research on measuring water going?
Yokogawa’s TDLS sensor measures the content of gases. We are going to use it to search for water on the Moon. On Earth, measurements can be started immediately; you know where water is, and the measurement conditions are all clear. But on the Moon, you first need to determine where to measure, and what the soil conditions are like there. Another challenge is that although there is some atmospheric pressure, it is almost a vacuum. If you drill into the ground under such conditions of extremely low pressure and low temperature, friction heat may vaporize the ice, making it impossible to measure. We are now working on these issues one by one with academics, especially those at the forefront of planetary science, to find out how we can accurately locate and then measure water. Although it is extremely difficult to measure unknown objects, we are tackling this challenging task with the help of academics and findings accumulated so far.
― I hear that Yokogawa’s fiber-optic sensing technology was adopted by JAXA. Ms. Fukuma, could you explain it more specifically and how your office is involved?
It is difficult for private companies to enter the space business, let alone produce immediate results. So, JAXA established the Space Exploration Innovation Hub in 2015 to support and accelerate the development of space technology in the private sector. Under this system, JAXA and private companies jointly work on research and development as open innovation, with the immediate goal of applying existing technologies available on Earth to space exploration. In 2021, Yokogawa’s fiber-optic sensing technology was selected as a request for proposal (RFP), and Yokogawa signed the first formal joint R&D contract with JAXA. The Space Business Development Office is supporting the paperwork for the contract and research.
I’d like to add a few things. Before the RFP, the Space Exploration Innovation Hub first issues a request for information (RFI). While setting space utilization as a future goal, it solicits information on technologies that can be implemented on Earth and bring innovation to society. The ideas adopted as RFI are reviewed by JAXA and refined to RFP. Yokogawa’s fiber-optic sensing technology was not adopted passively; we actively proposed this technology as RFI and JAXA acknowledged its potential for space development.
― In Part 2, we will look further at the current status and future prospects of Yokogawa’s space business.