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Space Week Japan took a step closer to Europe and other countries in space cooperation when the country signed the international charter on space and major disasters in Brussels yesterday.

The move is aimed at improving satellite photo responses to major disasters, including forest fires, earth quakes and floods - and was given added impetus by the Asian tsunami on 26 December.

At the signing ceremony, a Canadian official said Japan joined because "they saw the tsunami and it might happen to them next. They want to call upon the help of other nations". But a Japanese official insisted Japan had refrained from joining until now because it lacked earth observation satellites able to take high resolution pictures. Later this year, the ALOS satellite will be able to take 2-metre resolution pictures, equalling the capabilities of the European Ikonos satellite, he said.

Japan’s signature on the charter marks a closer approach between its space industry and the rest of the world. Japan has historically been very close to the US in aerospace, favouring Boeing over Airbus. It has sent four astronauts on the Space Shuttle, more than any other nation.

The charter, whose other signatories include the space agencies of Argentina, Europe (the European space agency ESA), Canada and India, was set up in 1999 and has been invoked 80 times. Signatories can call upon the combined services of all the signatories' earth observation satellite photos, free of charge, to improve responses to global emergencies.

The emergency does not have to be in a signatory country.

International aid agencies used satellite photos in 2002 after the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in the Congo destroyed 14 villages and left 500,000 people homeless. The satellites could see through the clouds and show rescue teams which were flat areas safe for refugee camp. and which areas had been most affected and needed the most urgent aid.

French and German relief workers were helped by satellite imagery after severe floods in December 2003 caused the Rhone and Gard rivers to inundate the countryside and the town of Arles. Pictures from high resolution SPOT satellites helped workers determine the best location for their powerful water pumps.

The Asian tsunami prompted four calls from the Indian agency covering India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand, providing more than 150 images. ®

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