Japan extends participation in International Space Station to 2030

FILE PHOTO: ISS is photographed by Expedition 66 crew member from aÊSoyuz MS-19Êspacecraft

TOKYO (Reuters) -Japan will extend its participation in the International Space Station (ISS) programme to 2030, education and science minister Keiko Nagaoka said on Friday, following the footsteps of ally the United States.

The United States pledged in December to keep the ISS operational through to 2030. Among Washington's programme partners, which are Russia, Canada, Japan and the 11-nation European Space Agency, Tokyo is the first to join the United States in extending participation.

The space station, a science laboratory spanning the size of a football field and orbiting about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth, has been continuously occupied for more than two decades under a partnership led by the United States and Russia.

Japan's announcement comes just days after NASA's next-generation moon rocket blasted off from Florida in a crewless voyage inaugurating the U.S. space agency's Artemis exploration programme, in which Japan is also participating.

"ISS is inevitable as a place to verify technologies for the Artemis programme. It is also an important venue for Japan-U.S. cooperation," Nagaoka said at a signing ceremony for a Japan-U.S. agreement on cooperation for a lunar space station called Gateway.

Under the agreement, a Japanese astronaut will go aboard Gateway, which is under development for the Artemis programme, and Japan will supply batteries and other equipment for that space station.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in May confirmed their intention to include a Japanese astronaut in the programme, including its lunar surface missions.

"We will maintain close cooperation with the United States to realise a Japanese astronaut's landing on the moon in the second half of the 2020s, which would be the first for non-Americans," Kishida said in a message read aloud at the ceremony.

(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Bradley Perrett)