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Japan promotes sand dunes to attract lunar companies

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TOKYO >> A research base for lunar exploration is taking shape at the Tottori Sand Dunes, a popular tourist destination in Tottori prefecture with an environment that’s similar to the surface of the moon.

Lunar experience tours using augmented-reality technology launched at the dunes last November, and the Tottori is eager to attract other space-related companies and research institutes.

During a night tour in October, visitors wearing goggles looked up at the starry sky over the sand dunes and saw what appeared to be a spaceship slowly descending.

The participants were seeing the actual dunes superimposed with computer graphics depicting NASA’s 1969 Apollo 11 mission when humans set foot on the moon’s surface for the first time.

“It was exciting. I’ve fallen in love with space,” said a 19-year-old participant.

The event is organized by Tokyo- based startup Amulapo; its chief executive, Katsuaki Tanaka, is a former space engineering researcher. The grains of sand on the moon and in the Tottori dunes are highly similar, according to Tanaka.

“Tottori is the most suitable place in Japan to have a moon experience,” he said.

Tottori’s dunes are believed to have been formed when deposits of granite sediment from nearby mountains accumulated along the coast of the Sea of Japan. The sand dunes are a designated national natural monument, stretching nearly 10 miles from east to west and 1-1/2 miles from north to south.

In recent years companies have sought out the location for lunar research and development. Tokyo-based startup Ispace Inc. used the dunes to develop a lunar rover from 2016 to 2018. The company, which is involved in NASA’s Artemis moon mission, re-created the lunar surface in the dunes to confirm the stability of communication links in steep-walled craters, among other activities. “We were able to conduct practical tests,” said an Ispace spokesperson.

In May, tire manufacturer Bridgestone and the Arid Land Research Center of Tottori University tested tires for use on a lunar vehicle.

Requests to work at the site continue to rise. In response, Tottori prefecture invested about 200 million yen ($1.5 million) in April to develop a test site at the dunes. It is also offering subsidies to several space-related startups.

“We hope the Tottori Sand Dunes become a cluster of space-related companies and research institutes,” said a Tottori spokesperson.

According to some estimates, the space sector will be worth 100 trillion yen ($755 billion) to the global economy by 2040, up from 37 trillion yen in 2017.

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